Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jeyamary Weds Surendran

Ms. Anto Xavier Jeyamary, the only daughter of my eldest brother, married Mr. Surendran, a driver by profession. Jeyamary is a teacher by profession with a Masters in Science (Chemistry) and a Bachelor degree in Education. However, she is under employed as she has not got any permanent job! (Height of unemployment in India) This was a arranged marriage, and both of them hail from the same village, Adaikalapuram in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu. The wedding ceremony took place on 30 December 2009, at 10.30 a.m., at Arockia Annai Church (Our Lady of Health) in the village with six priests officiating at the function. The marriage was attended by over 700 guests and involved dinner on 29 December, and Breakfast, grand lunch and dinner on 30 December 2009.

In total over 2,000 meals were served! We all wish the newly wed couple, long life, sweet days and healthy relationship. May God bless them.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


I travel a lot in India on the trains. One sight that cripples your eyes is the sight of children coming around to sweep the wagon in which you travel, and ask you pitiably for some money. I give at times generously, and sometimes meagerly. And I avoid giving any money rarely...when I see that actually it is a group that is coming around. These children are in their pre-teens, malnourished, shabbily dressed and usually between 6 - 9 years old. And they travel in these trains long distances. Once they have some money, they get into the next train and return. But, return to where? Do not know! Some of them can be seen on the platform of large railway stations. Some of them just seem to vanish.

Some organizations have taken up rehabilitation programs for these children. But none of seem to have any study on how exactly these children spend their 24 hours. What do they do for their survival? Entertainment? Shelter? How many of them approach to what? What are their other core competencies. Why don't we see teenage "sweepers" in the trains? (Although one / two are rarely visible, no regulars.) At the transition from preteen to teenage what happens to them? How and where do they disappear?

A student from Western Washington University will be coming in here soon: Andrew Roberts. He is willing to take the challenge. To sit in railway stations, to travel in local trains and follow these children to see what actually happens to them. How do they spend their 24 hours.

Meanwhile, if any of you have any better ideas as to what can be done for these children, write to me at

Friday, December 25, 2009

First Cave-Man of the Written History

From the Christmas reflections...given by Puthumai A. Nazarene, on 24 Dec 2009, midnight.

"Look at the Child. Look at his fragility. The One, who is born without a mother in heaven, is born without a father on earth. The one who will walk on the seas, and has the power to cross the oceans in seven steps, as Job describes, is now powerless even to stand up! The one whose breath can bring life, the one who speaks, and things come into being, is now lying, not able to speak a word! The one in whose hands are the entire human destiny, the moon and the stars, the one when he touches the dead rise to life, and the dumb begin to speak, now can not lift his fingers! It is in weakness divinity is!

Look at the symbolism of his birth. He is born in Bethlehem. Beth means “house”, and lehem means “bread”. It is “House of Bread”. The one who will be saying, “I am the living Bread. The one who eats of me shall never die”, is born in the house of Bread. Come all of you. And Eat of Him! He is born to be eaten. He is born to be shared. He is born to be broken. He would say, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven.” Yes, the bread from heaven is born in the house of bread, in a manger—a place for animals to eat! The symbolism of bread and eating cannot be left out. He will take a bread and tell his disciples, “Take this bread and eat, because this is my body…broken for you”. That is it. He is born to be eaten!

He is born in the manger, in a cave. Caves have small openings as doors. You need to bend yourself to enter in there. The one who does not want to bend oneself, stands outside! In humility we must bend ourselves before him. If you want to meet him, see him, you need to humble yourself and enter in. The one who did not find a place to be born is now born under the earth in a cave! Jesus becomes the first cave-man of the written history…to begin a new history. And from under the earth he will shake the pillars of history. Here on, the human history itself will get divided. Before Christ and After Christ!

(To receive the entire text write to me at :

Happy Christmas

Dear all, I wish you a Very Happy Christmas! May the joy and peace of newborn Christ fill your hearts with His Love.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

People Solution

It was yesterday, 23 December 2009. I reached Raiganj the previous evening, and in the morning, at the invitation of the priests at the Cathedral church in Chotparua, I shifted myself from Raiganj to stay with them during the Christmas. And the priests here had given me a room in the second floor. I reached there after meeting several of my friends, and consulting the doctors for a minor infection that I suffer from, at about 8.00 p.m. It was dark as I climbed up to leave my briefcase. I found that the lights on the wall that light up the staircase were not working. Immediately after that I joined them for dinner, at which I said about the staircase. The younger priests who were supposed to take care of house maintenance complained that the lights have been fixed in the “wrong places” that it is too difficult to change bulbs. They said, however, that they would give a try again. When I finished my dinner, taken my pills, and climbing up I saw two young priests and a housekeeper struggling with the bulb. They had brought a bamboo to climb up….which would have been extremely dangerous. The position of the bulb was in between two floors with no straight floor underneath. One of them was saying that the last time he changed the bulb, a year ago, they had brought a ladder and had it footed on single leg, and the other side was held by someone.

I looked up and gave them a flash answer. It is really easy to change the bulb! How? I told the priest (who was stronger physically) to pick up the housekeeper on his shoulder and that is exactly the height they needed. Believe it or not! With the housekeeper comfortably sitting on the shoulders of the priest, in a minute the fused bulb was replaced with a good one, and the lights came!

Moral of the event: a) Complicated problems often have simpler solutions. b) When you can not solve problems, seek advice. c) If things do not solve problems, people can. d) If you are willing to carry someone for a while, he would not mind making the place filled with light for you e) Problems can look clueless simply because of your perception

Have a Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Action is Inaction

The only action the government of West Bengal seem to be busy with, as it is feeling the heat of being in action for over 30 years ruling the State is: inaction. On 17th December 2009, Shri Anisur Rehman, Minister in Charge of Panchyats and Rural Development, West Bengal announced at a press conference that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) which is implemented as West Bengal Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (WBREGS)is being revised and the wages will now be Rs.100 per day from 1 January 2010. What these statements however do not reveal is how the State Government has withheld the rightful arrear payments of NREGS workers of Rs.500-Rs.1000 per job card holder.Wage revision for NREGA has been in the offing since February 2009, when the Finance Minister of India, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee declared in his budget speech that the central government would pay Rs.100 as wages for NREGA in 2009-10. Rural Development Ministry under the Government of India soon after that asked states to send in request for revision of wages. The notification said that it was willing to pay revised wages with retrospective effect from 1st April 2009.
West Bengal Government, disregarding even the fact that the West Bengal legal minimum wage for agricultural workers was Rs.87.50 from 1st April onwards, asked for a revision to Rs.81 only from the Central Government. In protest, several non-profit organizations wrote to the Government, to pay at least the minimum wages of 87.50 as permitted according to the State's law. Some other organizations also took up the matter with the Union government for removing the 100 days cap in view of the drought and spiralling prices. In response, the Central Interestingly, in reply, the Central Government stated that the cap on 100 days could also be lifted, if the State Governments used the funds provided to them under the Calamity Relief Fund.
It has now been notified that the West Bengal Government will pay Rupees.87.50 from 2 December 2009 and Rs. 100 from 1st January 2009. On the whole this means that workers in West Bengal have lost Rs.19 per person day since 1 April 2009. (Rupees 100 - 81). This is a massive loss for the State and for NREGS workers. Till date the number of person days generated in West Bengal from 1st April 2009 has been 77.016 million person days. So West Bengal has failed to claim Rupees.1463.304 million (Rupees.19 X 77.016). This means each household that worked has lost Rupees.491 on an average. In December, a further loss of about Rupees 400 can be expected by each household that works this month if they work for more than 24 days.
The Government seems to feel that it is difficult administratively to give arrears. They may also fear that it will lead to corruption and misappropriation. But how is it that there is no administrative problem ever standing in the way of paying arrears to Government employees. We can however be sure that the non payment of arrears to poor agricultural workers who are NREGS workers will certainly not mean an end to corruption. Excuses have many faces, and this is one of them. In stead of raising big noise all over the country about the exorbitant price rise and its impact on the common man, it is time that the Left Front government begins to pay what is rightfully due to the poor.
(Written with inputs from several persons, and a mail from Dr. Prabir Chatterjee)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Privilege of the Wealthiest

The old saying "Survival of the Fittest" has gone through an evolutionary process in the post Adam Smith era, and it can now be called "Privilege of the Wealthiest". Looking across the entire country, the wealthiest and politically powerful seem to make no mistakes, er..they are never noticed, or if they are, just condoned. India has seen hundreds of scams, running into billions of dollars! The recent scam of a state level politician Madhu Koda is said to be worth 2 billion rupees. Then we have the breed of Jayalalitha, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mayawati... and there are too many of them. And what is the amount of black money deposited in Swiss banks by our Indians: 1500 billion dollars! Oooh! That is more than 13 times the Indian foreign debt, and if brought back, can wipe out India's hunger. But no one will do it. Because it is the money of the law makers, law keepers and that of the wealthier class who can always beat around the law.

We also have another kind: children (mainly sons) of political powers and businessmen who run into crimes--hit and run cases, murders, rapes... just to name a few, and yet go scot free, almost. The law seem to look the other way round as the law-keepers and law-makers are in concurrence with one another. I do not think this is what free economies do to their economically vibrant citizens.

Look at the law-keepers. The national example is the stretched hands of policemen taking money from truck drivers, across the country, just shamelessly. As you come to the north and eastern parts of India, you see it a lot frequently. Look at the shape of the police: Bulging in their tummies, fat and over-weight, giving an impression of slackness, inaction and apathy.

In the final analysis two things seem to work better. a) There is always a huge gap between knowledge and understanding of the law, and keeping it. b) Power, economic or political, can buy the law. The only silver line that stands out amidst these dark clouds is: a pro-active judiciary...which unfortunately seem to have its own woes these days.


On 16 Dec, I left for Delhi, to attend a meeting on Lessons Learned in Inter-Agency Coordination, which was to be held on 17-18 Dec 2009. The travel to Delhi was uneventful. But, it was only when I booked the prepaid taxi did I realize that the venue is going to be really far. We were traveling towards south-east direction, got into the nearby State of Haryana, beyond the Ashoka Wildlife sanctuary and the Shooting Range (which is being readied for the Commonwealth Games 2010), and reached the picturesque Surajkund hills where our Hotel Atrium was located.

About Atrium: it is so beautiful from outside, and interiors well done, but services and food: minimal, and upkeep: absolutely poor. I wouldn't recommend you to go there, and certainly if someone is going to offer me a room for a stay there, I would refuse.

The meetings went on well and it was a great opportunity to meet some really great people. I was pleased to meet Anil Sharma, Prof. V.K. Menon, Sarbjit ji, G.Padmanabhan, Nupur Arora, Raghavan, Annie Joseph and many more. I could also meet some of my old friends: Myank ji from Gujarat, Ravi from upper Assam, Vikrant from Delhi, Dr. Bhanu from Uttar Pradesh, to name a few. The most surprising element was my chance to meet J. Radhakrishnan, whom I admire a lot, and have read about him, heard about him, but never seen him.

I must say something about Radhakrishnan. He was the Collector of Kumbakonam when a fire in a school killed about 23 innocent children. Radhakrishnan took prompt action: to get the guilty punished; and the most important of all: he did not allow the bodies of the children to be further mutilated by sending them to post-mortem. Such sense of respect to the feelings of the parents, and respect to the bodies of the young children, is rarely seen in administration. When I announced this fact, not known to many in the group, everyone clapped hands to appreciate him. He was also made the Collector of Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, immediately after Tsunami, to take care of the relief operations, and brought in accolades to the administration. I wish I could spend more time with him. (I miss another friend of mine: Sunil Paliwal, who was the Collector of Kanyakumari district, and handled tsunami relief operations there. I have lost touch with him. Any one knows where he is?)

With severe cough, cold and mild fever, I required some good rest, at least in the evenings. But I lost it on both the nights as hundreds of mosquitoes attacked me and found my room a safe haven. Atrium: a place for attrition.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Donkey and the Shovellers

The other day, a friend of mine sent me a mail with this interesting story. Since I thought it to be thought provoking, I am sharing it with you all. The story is titled as : "The Donkey Attitude"

One day a farmer's donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided: since the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway, it just wasn't worth it to retrieve the donkey. shoveler

He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone's amazement he quieted down. A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw.

With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.

As the farmer's neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!

The Moral of the story is :
Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a stepping stone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.

Remember the five simple rules to be happy:

1. Free your heart from hatred - Forgive.
2. Free your mind from worries - Most never happens.
3. Live simply and appreciate what you have.
4. Give more.
5. Expect less from people but more from God.
6. But above all, be watchful. Don't walk into a well down under (The sixth moral is from me!)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Request for books

Hello, all the readers, well-wishers and friends of me, and this blog!

This is an open letter to all of you. I am gathering books on the following two topics: Disaster and Development. The books related to disasters could be in the range of books that have studies, researches, opinions, disaster management, training modules, and anything related to emergencies or climate change issues. The books on development could be on: social development, economic development, studies and researches into societies / communities, books relating to challenges to development. Even journals on these subjects would be wonderful. (Not necessarily new books, even old ones in usable condition will do.)

If you wish to share any of these, you can mail them to : Puthumai A. Nazarene, Seva Kendra, 52-B Radhanath Choudhury Road, Kolkata - 700015, West Bengal, India. Before mailing, please alert me through an email to: or in my personal e-mail address that is known to you.

Where Life is full of Life!

The list of volunteers coming to learn about India and interested to learn more and more from the experiences of people like me seem to be expanding everyday. We have Ms. Vera from Germany who is here with me since 1 September, and she is expected to stay on till mid-August 2010 ! We are waiting for two more students to join us in the second week of January 2010 from the Seattle University, and for a short while towards the end of second quarter by another student from Western Washington University. Seattle University may also send a student during the summer quarter, if everything goes well. May be, a daughter of one of my friends in Netherlands could land up next year.... It is all exciting to see so many young people working with you, learning with you and you learn and get transformed by the commitment, zeal and enthusiasm of these young people. Life is full of life!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Waste Water, Want Water

The ancient saying goes: Waste Not, Want Not, which means, if you do not waste things, you will not be in a position of want some day. I have seen the water is wasted in West Bengal. Look at any municipality or town that has supply of drinking water. Over two-third of the water goes waste as the pipes do not have have any auto close tap attached with them, and so the water continues to flow on the streets, on the roads, and ultimately into the drains. Now, consider the case of West Bengal slowly becoming lesser and lesser sufficient on safe drinking water. In the post-cyclone Aila scenario, in the context of arsenic contamination across the state, in the case of lesser rainfall in some western and central districts of West Bengal-- a grim situation is knocking at the door. (Inset: an internet picture). People have not learned it the hard way. The amount of water that is being wasted even in Seva Kendra, here in Kolkata, is terrible. I have given them the idea of placing auto-close taps instead of the open taps that need human intervention for closing and opening. The idea has been taken for consideration, and soon all the common taps might get changed. The auto-close ones have just a spring inside, that would close the moment a person releases the lever. May be this is only a first step in the long journey of saving water. Everyone must contribute to reach the seventh millennium goal: environmental sustainability.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Strengthening Disaster Risk Reduction Programs

On 25-27 Nov 2009, Caritas India was conducting a workshop on preparing an Emergency Response Team at the Zonal level covering the States of Chattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal. I was asked to take a session on Needs Assessment on 25th and on Networking and Coordination on 26th. Since the invitation suddenly came on 25th from the national Emergency Officer of Caritas India, I could not refuse it. I quickly worked on the material available with me, and gave the presentations and took questions from participants. On 28th, there was a review meeting of the Community Based Disaster Preparedness project supported by Caritas India, with Mr. Peter Siedel of Caritas Germany, Mr. Karl Ammann, consultant to Caritas India, and Mr. Sunil Mammen, Emergency Officer, Caritas India present at the meeting.

In discussions that followed, besides various other things relating to the program, two new things came in strongly, though there were many other things that are of equal or more importance. But because these are in someway new, they drew my attention a lot more.

Firstly, disaster preparedness programs must also have a "MessageTransfer Tracking System". This is important specially in times of disaster to check on information flow (e.g. early warning) and to study how and if communication reached the community at all.

Secondly, it is essential to segregate core components of disaster preparedness from secondary components of development and mitigation within the disaster preparedness / Disaster risk reduction programs, in order to understand the impact of the preparatory measures and risk reduction measures.


On 19 Nov I took a travel to the Darjeeling district of Bengal. Since I had no confirmed ticket on an air conditioned coach, I had to travel on a sleeper coach. With loose windows cold breeze was flowing in freely, and by the morning on 20th I reached, I was already affected by severe fever, and increased cold and cough. At the same time, a political group in the Darjeeling hills had called for an wildcat strike on the 20th. And so I came down by bus to Raiganj in the afternoon from Siliguri. By then the fever and cold had turned worse. I was flat in bed for couple of days, and returned to Kolkata on 23 Nov. However, since then, I feel pretty weak and sleepy. May be with the drugs that I am taking, it is making me feel drowsy.

On 27 Nov, I had to travel to Krishnagar, 110 kilometers north of Kolkata. The journey should have been just good, as the buses that leave early in the morning are normally free, and I should have reached there in two and a half hours. But it was not so, as on 28th is the Muslim festival of Id. People were returning to their homes. So, even my attempt to catch the morning bus at 5.00 a.m failed! In the process, by the time I reached the railway station, I missed the early morning train as well. And by the time I took the next train that left Kolkata at 6.50, and reached Krishnagar at 10.00 a.m, I had already spent time standing for over 5 hours! My legs and and back are aching with the push and pull of the co-passengers, and the strain of keeping your feet firmly on the ground in a train that was truly flooded with people. Jai Ho, Indian railways!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Infant & Maternal Mortality High in Maoist Hit Parts of West Bengal

(This is a news report from a friend of mine who works for Press Trust of India. Opinions and data expressed are his.)
Bandwan (WB), Nov 26 (PTI) The sound of conch shells during a baby's first rice ceremony held at Supadih village indicate celebrations in the hilly, predominantly tribal, poorest West Bengal district of Purilia that is blighted by Maoist insurgency. "Newborn deaths is common here and many women die during childbirth in this district that has poor roads, bad transport and prone to wild elephant and snake attack," says Gharani Bala Mahato, a housewife who lives in the village that borders Jharkhand.
The high rate of newborn and maternal mortality in districts like Purulia and Bankura, backs Unicef's latest report on child mortality in India. The report released this past week states 5,000 children under the age of five die in India everyday due to preventable causes. "Sixty out of 1000 newborns die in Purulia district every year due to malnourishment, underweight and lack of cleanliness in case of home deliveries. Several babies also die of pneumonia before attaining one month age," Dr Abinash Besra, Health Officer of Bandwan
BPHC told PTI.
"A total of 120 women died while giving birth to babies in the district. The main cause of death is eclampsia which involves a rise in pregnant woman's blood pressure, swelling in the feet
and convulsions before, during or soon after child birth. Mostly underage pregnant woman suffer from it due to high rate of child marriage," he says. The newborn and maternal mortality rate is the highest in Purulia district, health officials say.
Poverty being high, babies are born underdeveloped and pregnant women suffer from anaemia too. "Early marriage and inadequate health care of women which adversely affects the survival of the children," says Dr. Besra. Another cause of newborn and maternal deaths are superstitions among villagers and tribals - particularly in Jhalda, Baghmundi and Bandwan blocks. "Mothers are provided with dry food like puffed rice, garlic and other less nutritious food with the misconception that else the mother will not recover fast.
This causes malnourishment in infants posing a risk to their lives," says Dr Besra who is also a local of the village. "Infants are bathed in pond water on the ninth day which causes infection on the belly. Tribals prick the arms, forehead, legs and belly using a the red-hot tip of a sickle. These practises causes infection and many newborns die of tetanus," he says.
Housewives like Gharani Bala Mahato and Kajali Kisku of the jungle village say mothers are compelled to duck into pond water on the seventh day after childbirth which doctors say may cause vaginal infections. The narrow rocky undulating paths through jungles, makes it difficult for pregnant women in labour to reach the hospital here.
The number of hospitals and health centres are also very low in the region. Gharani Bala says very few people are willing to venture out at nights during winter fearing wild elephants. A lack of motorised cars and ambulances are other impediment to take a pregnant woman to hospital, she says. District administration and Unicef-supported local NGOs have formed Self-Help Groups in the villages to break the superstitions, keep an eye on the pregnant women and trained to maintain a chart of ante-natal check-ups and vaccinations from nursing staff visiting the villages.
Block Development Officer of Bandwan, Prasenjit Das said the groups were provided van-rickshaws to carry pregnant women to hospital and one more ambulance was bought this year. "Rooms were cleared in godowns meant to keep forest products to make space for labour rooms with kits for safe delivery. Village midwives were imparted rudimentary medical training to deliver babies and awareness campaigns were launched," says Das.
Dr Besra said 30 per cent of the children have been born without the assistance of a trained health specialist. Only two hospitals in the district with nearly 25.5 lakh population have caesarean sections and ante-natal check-ups are mostly neglected, doctors say. "The hospitals are being equipped with better instruments, more beds are being added in all the hospitals in
the district. To promote hospital delivery, each baby is provided with hypothermic kits to maintain cleanliness and Rupees 500 for the mother's well nourishment," he says. (For Press Trust of India, Amitava Das)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fakes live longer...

Take the case of fakes. They last longer than their lifetime. Look at the number of "serious mails" that seem to offer you hundreds of millions of dollars. They have not stopped since I know internet. I know several men in parts of Bengal who used to go around with a photocopied one million dollar note asking people if they could help them with changing the original, as they said, the original was with one of their friends or close relative. Once I had a chance of seeing one of those. I had to get to business. Not for calling up the police or money changer. But to the internet, to check if it was true. Well, it was! Only that it is a memorial note, and had hardly any value. And you could buy it on the internet the same thing starting from 300 rupees to 2000 rupees! Last year someone started circulating a mail saying that Microsoft and AOL are paying them in thousands of dollars for passing on the message. Why should Bill Gates part with his fortune? To check if you are running a original version of Microsoft OS or not! Heavens! It would cost him less to open source the code than to pay these rogues, check if their OS was genuine, pay for every forwarded mail 245 US dollars, as the mail claimed. I wrote back to people who were forwarding this asking them to stop this nonsense.

Since last week another mail is circulating, which I had actually seen three years ago. The mail has graphic pictures of slaughtering of "dolphins" in the sea shores of Denmark, and says that Denmark is to be blamed for this, and everyone must protest, and asks all to sign the protest letter. The problem is : a) Those are not dolphins, but long finned pilot whales (b) The event takes place in Faroe islands, and not in Denmark. Faroe islands do not depend on Denmark for internal administration; they are not even part of European Union, although it depends on Denmark for foreign affairs and defence. (c) If people have not done anything in three years time, with all the animal rights activists around, I don't think much will happen with the signature campaign (d) It is not a festival as the picture claims, but an event attended by the local islanders as they try to catch them, kill them all for eating! (Hei, that's what every fishing is all about!) When the islanders see the whales all coming together they use motorized boats to slowly move them to shallow waters and then catch them and cut them.

Finally, you know what the islanders tell about us? They say, they are creating awareness to the world about what is happening every day across the seas all over the world....! They say, people of "the modern world have become so far removed from the harsh realities of animal food production that they have formulated unrealistic notions of how food actually gets to their tables". In other words, people think that animal and fish products come to their tables, as if plucked from an apple tree!

Personal opinion:
All forms of wanton violence is bad.

Monday, November 23, 2009

House of the Dead

I must make a confession today. The confession of being a great lover of Dostoevsky's novels. I used to buy good many of them. And indeed, several of them have been just lost, as it happens when you give them to your trusted friends for reading. They never come back. One of the most beautiful novels that hardly gets quoted is "The House of the Dead", in which the hero Alexander Petrovich is condemned to life of imprisonment in Siberia. (Even in seminaries they quote his most famous books: Brothers Karamazov and Crime & Punishment). In the House of the Dead, the gentleman Petrovich sees the sufferings of the people, both sublime and hardcore criminals in their best and the worst, their energy and lethargy, in the confines of Siberia, where he is destined to suffer along with them. And in one of those scenes he makes a point about the hardness of life in prison. He says, life in prison is hard for three reasons: firstly, Hard labour (Hard labour means, not physically making you sick; peasants in the field do more work than a prisoner. But it is hard because, you work, and you will not have the fruit of it. It is a fruitless labour) . The second reason is, Loss of Freedom. (This is easily understood, as it involves a total of loss of control of yourself, and letting someone else control your time, your food, your entertainment etc.) And thirdly, he says, life in prison is hard because of Enforced Communal Living. (One cannot make a choice with whom he or she will live with. One cannot choose to avoid. You are just condemned.)

Life seems to be going in that direction for many. One big Siberia for all. One big world, and yet little place to escape.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How to Win Votes and Make the Government Last

The Left Front Government run by the Communist Party of India - Marxist and their affiliates has been looking shaky these days. And the opposition is laughing its way to the vote bank. Some of my friends in various political parties have been asking me to help them with some ideas on how to get some extra edge by getting some pockets of unidentified votes. So, here are some ideas to all of them. If you do it, you get some extra votes...and that can make a lot of difference between a win and a loss.

1. Announce that all the houses partially damaged in landslides on the Darjeeling hills will be considered as fully damaged, and compensation will be given accordingly. (Since no one can live in a partially damaged house, or a "hanging" house after a landslide, this demand is over due. It can bring in about 100,000 votes, and a lot of good will among the people living in the hills.

2. Remove the tax on audio system in cars in West Bengal. The tax is about 60 dollars per year! This is also sign of government's bankruptcy, and has alienated about a 500,000 car or bus owners. Remove this, at least 1/5 of this group will vote for you.

3. Hardly any christian school has been recognised in the last 20 years. Give recognition to at least one more school run by the Christians in each district of West Bengal. That comes to 18 schools in districts, and one in Kolkata. But this can bring in minimum of 200,000 votes from the christian groups, specially from the organized catholic community. Ultimately this serves to fulfill the government's commitment for education.

4. Make sure that every week the people working under National Rural Employment Guarantee act are paid for the preceding week. This needs just a little bit of organizational commitment. That is all. I am sure, this could turn in around 500,000 votes.

5. Ask the District Magistrate and all chief officials of the various line departments sit each week in one of the blocks on a particular day (E.g. Every Tuesday-- in the first week in Block 1, in second week in Block 2 and so on), and call for grievances from the public, sort out the pending files. (This would be an improvement on what some of the south Indian states are doing already.) I can guarantee, ultimately you will have a lot more people satisfied. Every satisfied person will be turning out to vote for you.

Is the government listening? More ideas can be given to people who want to listen! (After all, as my elder brother says, the only thing that is freely available in India are ideas! You ask anyone, they come out with ideas!!!)

Birthday Pangs!

I wanted to take off from the normal routine of life on 16 Nov 2009. Yeah, it is my birthday. I just went out of Seva Kendra where I stay these days (that I may not have much work), and caught up on some pending works on the internet, took plenty of rest in a friend's home, and had some home-made mutton curry for the night. No partying, no big bang high class dinners. Had a cake cut, and it was all simple relaxation. Lots of friends called up to wish. Oversees friends wished me in E-mails and on Facebook. It also made me feel, how tired I am. I am still truly tired.

My body is aching for some more rest. I cannot afford it at this moment. More works are pending. It is once again fast track. As one of my friends calls me, I am an "Opel Astra without gear!"

The BIG trainings!

Two advanced level trainings for 52 senior staff of 47 non-profit organizations was organized at Hotel Peerless Inn, Kolkata in two batches. The trainings were on Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction measures, and how to improve upon the present risk reduction programs in vogue. The first batch of 24 participants had the training from 9-11 Nov 2009, and the second batch of 28 of them had the training from 13-15 Nov 2009. The training was facilitated by RedR India and organized by the State Inter Agency Group - West Bengal. As the State Coordinator of the State Inter Agency Group, I had had tremendous task of organizing the trainings--starting from arranging the logistics, travels, training materials and tools, and the smooth going of the training itself. It ate up 10 best days of my life! But, it was a great experience. And the trainees were extremely pleased with the comfort of the Peerless Inn and the food that was delicious. For my side, well, I enjoyed the fruits in the mornings and evenings, in the Oceanic, the hall in which buffet meals are served. The team of District Coordinators of the Community Based Disaster Preparedness program supported by Caritas India and Catholic Relief Services were extremely happy for the opportunity that I could make for them, both in terms of the quality of training and in terms of their stay that was more than comfortable!

At the end of the 15th day of the month, one man was fully drained out, and yet, fully satisfied... It is me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Images and Sounds

I have spoken number of times with Mr. Praveen Pawar of RedR India (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief) over the phone. The simplicity and the softness of his voice always showed that he may be a very young man and physically thin and straight... Or at least that is the size of consultants of RedR India I have come to know since cyclone Aila, and even before. On 8 November 2009, Praveen was coming for the first time to facilitate a training on Community Based Disaster Risk Reduction for field practioners of various non-profit organizations working with the State Inter Agency Group. I was waiting for a thin man coming from the airport, and I was supposed to take him to UNICEF, and then drop him at the hotel. But I was amazed by a huge man (for Indian standards), although young (in his late thirties).

I didn't expect that. Did I work on my own preconceived images? Where did I get this presumption from? Am I prejudiced by the "sound" of his voice? How often, harmless prejudices creep in, and can lead to harmful prejudices that can destroy relationships, persons and communities. Images can be imagery. Sounds may not actually tell a thing.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Making Sense or Non-Sense

On Wednesday, 4 November 2009, while walking under the Grand arcade, (as the stretch on the Grand Hotel side of the Esplanade area is called), I was specifically paying attention to vendors selling T-shirts with innovative or funny sentences inscribed on them. But nothing can beat what I saw on one of the shops that must be wasting its money on the rent more than earning--a shop that sells shoes. Well, there are many there, selling one brand or the other, and at a stretch, with a premium tag added to them; which means, you pay more for the same thing.

The Bata shop that is the largest shoe maker and seller in India has a shop there, with several types of shoes, with "names" attached to them. One them proudly said on a white board, written in black, "Hush Puppies". You mean "Hush puppies?" What sense does it make? [My friend Andrea would be amused to read such things.] After all the shoes are not meant for some puppies. They were for grown up adult men! (Or may be, these men are treated as puppies at home?) Huh! But why hush about it? Making little noise? Or, may be, little or no sense. After all, if you can sell your wares, you don't have to make sense.

I remember how the self help groups name their products. One of them selling pure turmeric powder read: "Maa Mangalmayee Self Help Group produced pure Turmeric" Who would ever read that, or ever mean that? They should go to the Batas to come out with names. What about 'Docomo' turmeric? The new name in Indian cell phone market? I never got the sense out of it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Training on Disaster Risk Reduction

The State Inter Agency Group – West Bengal (IAG-WB) in association with RedR India has completed six residential trainings programs successfully (3 in North Bengal and 3 in South Bengal) on Emergency Needs Assessment between September-October 2009. That took quite a lot of my time, as I had to work on the Scope of Work to logistics, training schedules, venues, participants and finances.

The State IAG-WB is committed to strengthening of systems and structures that promote the advanced knowledge and understanding of community based disaster risk reduction measures across the state partners and make it more child focused and promoting traditional learning and coping mechanisms. In this we are also receiving technical and financial handholding from Disaster Management Department, Government of West Bengal, UN agencies and International - National NGO partners.

Now, it is time for next round of trainings! This time we shall focus on the capacity building of the members of the State Inter Agency Group-West Bengal (State IAG-WB) by refreshing their concepts, advanced knowledge and understanding on community based disaster risk reduction. The training will also attempt to bring commonality among various models and modules adapted in the CBDRR / CBDRMP programs undertaken by the partners including GoWB. It will help us to improve our resource pool with advanced learning and understanding in CBDRR, the trainees can be an asset to the organizations and to the State-IAG-WB

The first batch of training will start on 09 Nov 2009 9.00 hours and will go on till 11 Nov 2009 16.00 hours; the second batch of training will be from 13 Nov 2009 9.00 hours till 15 Nov 2009 16.00 hours. Both the trainings will take place at Hotel Peerless Inn, Kolkata, with residential facility. So. that will keep me busy for the next five to six days.... just on my toes.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Copy Right or Right to Copy?

In India copyright is respected for the "right to copy". You show anything. And Indians can copy it, and deliver it cheap. Machines, machine guns, computers, dumpers, rockets, sockets, medicines or kerosene.... Say anything. And they have it copied. Walk the streets along Esplanade or College Street in Kolkata. Every book that you can buy for US $ 20 can be purchased for 200 rupees (less than 5 dollars). The Indians have been fighting for reducing the protection period allotted for intellectual property rights and copy rights. Today, two US visitors to Kolkata were saying about abominably high medical costs in India, saying that people can run into bankruptcy due to medical bills. The lady in the team was speaking of a medium cost pacemaker that cost one of her relatives 122,000 US dollars, excluding other expenses! This sort of abnormality must be removed. If people cannot get medical services at affordable price, whichever generation you are in, and whichever economy you are in, you are walking to your grave. No wonder the Indians are upset with "nonreplicable" forms of seeds, medicines and instruments. Longlive copycats!

Body telling

The last four weeks went in a crash. I had no proper rest, no good sleep, and no time to relax. But the Monday and Tuesday (2 -3 Nov) came as a relief. Not that I did not work. But I could work a little more relaxed. I had enough time to catch up with the accounts, with some databases and other things. Oh yes, I must also wash my clothes, which I have not been able to do. (Any helpers?? Ha...ha...ha...) The students from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) are in Darjeeling for a visit to study on the landslides. The students from U.S. will be arriving in January 2010. Vera Schmidt is better settled. So, that gives me little more time to work on other pending issues, which I am able to take up now. Soon, more trainings will come in and I should be busy by the end of this week, keeping me on toes once again. And the body that has been aching for some relief got to see the bed a longer than usual. (What is usual? 4 hours in the last month. And now, I could take rest for about 7 hours.) After all, one can never cheat one's body. It tells.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Leave the dead to bury the dead

One of the Indian news dailies, the Telegraph, in its Kolkata edition has come out with a news item on the catholic church permitting "simple burial" to those who have committed suicide, but "not of scandalous nature".

"Till now, the bodies of those who committed suicide were only allowed up to the main gate of a church for prayers before being taken to the cemetery, where they would be buried in an obscure corner without any religious rite. No priest would accompany the mourners. Now the Church has decided to give those who die by suicide a “simple burial”. It means their bodies can be brought inside church premises and a priest can bless the grave, though there would be no homily or holy mass." - said the newspaper. I am not sure what would Jesus do if he were the priest! By the way, will someone explain to me what is a scandalous suicide? The obscurity remains. Quoting church sources the newspaper says that the change in Church's stand is in response to allegations of insensitivity in cases involving people who commit suicide out of agony

I believe, the stand of the catholic church in this case is preposterous. However, after all, we must leave the dead to bury the dead, and move on!

Where Grace Abounds

The last week had been extremely strenuous with so much of hectic action going on. In spite of it, I had to work harder to ensure that the training of the Sisters of Providence in basic knowledge on Social Work goes well, as I had agreed for the dates much earlier. On 31 Oct morning at 5.00 a.m. I left by car on road to Barrackpore for the morning training sessions, and returned at 1.00 p.m., and then after the launching of the website of the State Inter Agency Group - West Bengal, left for Barrackpore again, only to return at night 10.00 p.m. Then, on 1 Nov 2009, left at 5.30 a.m., and continued the sessions till 4.30 p.m. in the evening, and returned to Kolkata. The training centred around : Community Mobilization techniques, and on accessing government schemes. I thank Sr. Lizy, the provincial and Sr. Gracy, her secretary for arranging the travel, stay and other logistics comfortable. I wish all the best to the 19 sisters who participated in the training program.

Launching the Website

The launch of the website of the State Inter Agency Group - West Bengal (IAG-WB) was held on 31 October 2009, at 17.00 hours at Hotel Peerless Inn, in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. The State Coordinator of the State IAG-WB, Puthumai A. Nazarene welcomed all the distinguished guests and placed before them the successes and challenges of the State IAG-WB. Speaking on the occasion Mr. S.N.Dave, Senior Program Manager,UNICEF; Mr. Nikhilesh Das, Chairman, Indian Red Cross Society - West Bengal, and Mr. Debabrata Pal, Joint Secretary, Disaster Management Department, Government of West Bengal congratulated the State IAG-WB for all the activities, and assured it of their success. The meeting ended with vote of thanks from Fr. Reginald, the Convener of State IAG-WB, and few words from professor Chandan Majumdar of Jadavpur Univerisity.

Since the Minister in Charge of Disaster Management Department could not make it to the occasion due to a delayed flight from Chennai, the honorable Joint Secretary launched the website: All the readers of this blog may visit the site to know of the happenings relating to diaster preparedness and response in the state of West Bengal, India.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The countdown begins

There is hardly 48 hours to go... The countdown has begun. The state inter agency group - West Bengal, of which I am the State Coordinator will have its official website launched at 17.30 hours Indian time by the honorable Minister in Charge, Department of Disaster Management, Government of West Bengal at Hotel Peerless Inn, in Kolkata.

All are welcome!

(N.B. Today I had a quick peep into the website as Jadavpur University with whom I have made a contract for designing and maintaining the website gave me a pre-launch view into the site. Thanks to Professor Chandar Majumdar who has become a great friend of mine in the process of planning, designing and developing this website.)

Emergency Needs Assessment Trainings

The months of September and October will be remembered for some of the deals I struck with two organizations. The first is with RedR India (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief) whom I could get to train 150 staff of over 50 non-governmental and government organizations, and have them trained properly in doing needs assessment in emergency situations. The trainings took place in North Bengal in Malda, Jalpaiguri and Siliguri, with logistic assistance from RCHSS,
an organization based in Malda, and in Dhamakhali, Kolkata and Kharagpur, with logistic support from PRISM. I must also thank Mr. Aniruddha Dey who has been a great support to me and an elder brother, patiently assisting me with whatever voluntary support he could give.

The second deal is with Concern Worldwide. I could strike a deal with them for financial support for the training in emergency needs assessment held in South Bengal. I thank both RedR and Concern Worldwide, (specially Mr. Sebastian of Concern) for their extended support. Oh yes, I
could meet my old friends Sameer Karia and others in the process. The months ended with another deal with Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) who have sent four interns for building a state level vulnerability and hazard mapping.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Pokers and Movers

In the so called developed world we have Packers and Movers who pack your things and get you move to newer destinations. I found a new genre of people -- Pokers and Movers! I am speaking of two new friends I have from the Netherlands. These people whom I met in Kolkata couple of weeks ago were "extreme" travelers for any Indian standards. Being women did not stop them from moving to unknown destinations. Most of the times when they took guides, I found that they were guiding the guides! And one of them is also an acupuncture therapist. She volunteered to help me with some poking... The first day wasn't painful, but the second day was. And she attributed it to the activated vessels in my body. But for a third round.... thank God, we ran short of needles, and so I escaped with just two rounds.

As for the results, I can still feel it. I feel extremely tired, and my body is aching for some rest and sleep. Who ever thought, just 10 needles pierced all over your body, sometimes screwed as if my body was some sort of a nut, and then pulled out and pierced in another part of the body, could actually make a person feel so tired?

These women never seemed to be settled in a place. Throughout the day, they moved around, and only for a dinner and to discuss about their adventures they would drop in the evenings. If you ever visit Netherlands, (beware!), they might be waiting to poke you... Ha...ha..ha...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Herd of Migrants

I was returning from Raiganj to Kolkata last week. I saw once again the usual herd of migrants, having filled the Malda town railway station. There was no place to walk on the platforms, on the veranda outside, why, even on the road outside. All of them having filled the place, sleeping out there.... Waiting for the next train that will take them to Delhi...or Mumbai, or Chennai or Bengaluru. Their dream destination. They would work for weeks. Most of them go for the 50 days contract. According to the 50 days contract, the laborer gets 5,000 rupees for 50 days of work with simple food and accommodation in a crowded room or on the road side, or under a building. I call it a herd, because there is always some leader whom these people blindly follow.

On the East Canal Street that I take to go from Seva Kendra to Kolkata station there is a place where people keep thousands of sheep and goats that are ready for slaughter. (You can never miss the place as the stench emanating there just stops your breath.) Hundreds of them stand on left side of the road, and in the evenings they put them in small rooms on the right side of the road. They seem to have no problem in taking these sheep and goats each day from one side to another, although hundreds of them are replaced each day. How do they manage it?

Simple, they do not kill three sheep / goats. They are the team leaders. They walk ahead each day taking the entire herd back and forth, across the road... leading them to slaughter, and they themselves, do not get killed! This is what happens to rural India. Led to slaughter by the wickedness of a few.

Catholic Relief Services is doing a study on migration of people from the Sundarbans in the post-Cyclone Aila context. As the number of people who have migrated continues to increase, we find that from more than 60% of families people are migrating to other parts of India. Welcome to the new brand of India. Nomadic India!

Crowd and Stress

The other day a friend told about a research by some scientists on if crowding leads to increase in stress and violence. According to the research, twenty five rodents were used for the research. In one box twenty rodents were left together, and in another of the same size and type five of them were left. They were fed regularly. Over a month, it was noticed that the rodents in the crowded box were becoming more and more violent, irritated, and on test it was found that they had higher adrenalin than the rodents who had more space to move about.

India is becoming one big crowd. The governments are busy working on controlling the masses... the naxalites, Maoists, terrorists, murderers, rapists... the list seem to have no end. Over the three months I have been in Kolkata I too begin to understand what it means. I have done more work than what I do here. My working hours have normally ranged between 14 - 18 hours a day. But I had never felt stressed and irritated. But, here in this big city of Kolkata, I feel the pinch. You develop a sense of rejection. After all, this is a world of too many choices. And you need to reject all others to make one choice. This is a crowded world, where everyone tries to push and pull, to make their own way. It is within this you need to find your way. No wonder, it adds on stress. It lets your adrenalin work harder. This world kills... along with all the pollution that is home to Kolkata.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Vini, Vidi, I'm Vera!

The first intern since Chelsea left India, and I settled in south of West Bengal has arrived. Vera Schmidt. That's her name. Vera arrived on 30 Sept 2009, and she is staying with me here in Kolkata. She is just getting herself settled, and is expected to be the longest serving intern with me, as she plans to be here for about a year. Welcome Vera ! Friends from Germany will be able to read the blogs of Vera at Vera in India or at

Leaving the boring days behind...

It been since long that I wrote an article in my blog.... May be my regular readers have stopped looking at it, because there is nothing new in it. Yeah, life had been pretty boring in the last couple of months, in spite of the fact that I have traveled a lot within the state for organizing several trainings and meetings, and to Delhi to give my suggestions to the revision of the Sphere handbook, and organizing multi sectoral assessments in the flood affected districts of Hooghly, Malda, Jalpaiguri and landslide affected district of Darjeeling. Since 24 August till 8 September, the days went very
quickly, as I traveled between the northern districts of Malda, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar and Darjeeling, organizing 24 team members, training them to do a multi sectoral assessment in those flood affected districts. And by the time the reports of North Bengal assessments were ready, there was heavy rain in southern districts of Bengal, followed by the Damodhar Valley Corporation opening over 300,000 cubic feet per second of water suddenly, in order to save a dam, leading to severe flooding in Hooghly district, and four other districts in Bengal.

That called for more action, more meetings, more visits and assessments of the damages etc. The reports are currently available in the "Public Library" that comes with this blog. Then came the visit to Delhi for three days, to work on the Chapter 3 of the Sphere handbook, specially on the food security part. My contribution to the chapter has been highly appreciated, specially for working on the new framework of the chapter which indicates poverty and socio, economic, and political contexts in which malnutrition and food insecurity appear, besides writing a new definition for the "food aid".

(In picture : people in ad hoc relief camps, and a house fallen down the hills during a landslide.)
Following all these I arranged for training of 75 persons selected from six northern districts, and trained them in doing quality Emergency Needs Assessment, with support from an organization called RedR India. The experience was really good as I could slowly begin to influence the lives of many. That is what I miss the most. I seem to be working the whole day. But I am not able to directly influence the lives of people positively. That
separates me....distances me from the people. I want to go back to them.... To be with them. To live and work and die with them!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Disasters Count In Life

It is nearly three months since Cyclone Aila struck 18 districts out of 19 districts in West Bengal, affecting 6.8 million people, killing 139 persons, and over 100 million dollars in damages. The most affected were two southern districts : North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas. By the time the relief operations were over in south Bengal, the northern districts of Malda, Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar were affected by flash floods and river erosion. The landslides in Darjeeling however went without much news, other than for little media report on the problems relating to transport of materials during emergency from the plains to the hills. All these took place between 15 - 19 August 2009. Then came another disaster in southern districts of Bengal, where 10 districts were affected due to heavy rains. Worst hit was the Hooghly district, along with some parts of Burdwan and West Midnapore districts. These districts were thrown out of gear due to opening of two dams in the borders of West Bengal. According to government estimates, at least one million people were affected in the district of Hooghly alone! Over all, 180 persons have died and assets worth over 150 million has been wiped out since Aila, besides the long term impacts on children, livelihoods, education and health services. One thing seem to be becoming more and more clear: wherever there is a disaster....I seem to be the victim! That's on the lighter vein. I have been involving over 30 organizations to do four multi-sectoral assessments of the damages (3 in north bengal, 1 in south bengal), and over 35 persons to complete the exercise. The disasters have changed my life. Changed for ever!!!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Counting the Migrants

During a meeting of Non-Profit Organizations serving the people affected by Cyclone Aila in South 24-Parganas District of West Bengal, I was faced with the severe problem of people migrating to other parts of the State and the country for livelihood options. Since these places are known for migration, but this time it seemed to be more in distress, I sat down to write a project to do a study on "Has Cyclone Aila led to increased migration--if yes, to what extent, and how this is socially, economically distributed? What are the implications of this on gender and children related issues?

The project was proposed to Catholic Relief Services, which has accepted to fund the study. And so a team has been formed to do it : The Catholic Relief Services (CRS) will support for three Panchayats, WWF will support with personnel for two, Palli Unnayan Samity will be the local coordinating partner, Ms. Bhaswati Thakurta of Women Studies Research Center, University of Calcutta, and Puthumai A. Nazarene for Data Management and Analysis. The team will begin its work from 6 Aug 2009 and the study is expected to be completed by 31 Oct 2009.

Lightings : Are they More Powerful in the Evenings?

The month of August has begun with two tragic events in West Bengal, besides the death of the State Minister of Transport, Mr. Subhas Chakraborty. On 4 Aug, Tuesday, at 6.00 p.m. a group of villagers conducting post-funeral rites, after the death of a 60 year old man 12 days before in the village, about 150 kms North-West of Kolkata, were struck by a lightning, and eight of them were killed on the spot, and one died in the hospital. On 5 Aug, Wednesday, a group of workers repairing a damaged embankment in another village (Bagbagan, of Rangabelia, in Gosaba Block of South 24 Parganas district) in the Sunderban forests in the Gangetic delta of West Bengal, about 130 kilometers South East of Kolkata were struck by a lightning, and one person was killed, and two are seriously injured, with four others suffering minor injuries. The incident took place at 4.30 p.m. in the afternoon.

This makes me wonder --are there no lightnings in the mornings? Why the lightnings seem to kill a lot more people in the evening than in the morning? Are they more "powerful", or is it sheer chance that the people just come on its way, and get killed? Any clues? Any answers?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Paper Girl

The second weekend of July month was really hectic at Malibari, a tiny village with five hamlets surrounding it. Malibari is less than 25 kilometers from Raiganj. But the differences are vast. There is no electricity, no road, no sanitary facilities, no internet connection, restricted cellular connectivity, and lack of access to basic amenities of life--including health and education--make it an ideal setting for any Indian cinema for shooting a film, with river Nagar adding to the music of the little cluster of villages. Malibari is also blessed with great mixture of animist tribal communities, Bengali speaking Hindu communities, Mohammedans and some converted tribal Christians. It is just two kilometers away from a larger village called Bhatol. Malibari has a little school with tin roof and partly raised open wall, placed under my guidance. Since a teacher had left couple of months ago, and that I had just taken over the school only from the first week of July, I had to identify a teacher. Now, for the starters, in these little village schools we are not looking for “teachers” who are trained in the best schools of pedagogy. That is so for three reasons : the rural setting is too alien to the urban educated teachers who love to live in comfort; there is a need for teachers who can reach out to the children and their parents on day to day basis; and, the payment for teachers is abysmally low in these rural private run schools. So, I have to find someone who has completed at least 10th grade, and can teach and understand children.

On Saturday and Sunday, besides all the other celebrations, meetings and marketing that I had to complete, I came across one girl who impressed me while choosing a teacher. We had a three member team to interview the girl who is just touching her twenties. Her name is Piyali Roy. She hails from Bhatol, and her father used to work as a cleaner of a vehicle; he gathered some money, and purchased a jeep on loan, and runs it to manage a family of five, while he continues to pay back the loan. Piyali on her part contributed to the family actively since she was seven years old. She used to be a “paper girl” in that little Bhatol which boasts of a population of about 1,500 residents. She was issuing 100 newspapers every day. That is really impressive for a village like Bhatol, because for about 300 families and 30 odd shops, that is really a good reach. So, our questions revolved around how she made a successful business? She had the mantra. Reach the paper on time! People wanted the papers at the same time each day. So, she would go around on her bicycle to reach the 100 families and shops to deliver the newspapers. Then she came out with the truth. “Since last year I have not been delivering the paper on regular basis. May be five to six times a month. My brother takes care of it.”. “Why?”, we enquired. “Because people think that I am too old to deliver papers as I am a young girl. And so they make funny comments about me from behind. So, I go to deliver the papers only when my brother has something else to do.” We insisted on enquiring further : “Do you really mind the comments?” Piyali replied, “Those damned people, I don’t give a damn! That’s why I deliver the papers even now when my brother is out, or for study. I had to stop my studies three years ago, to support my family. But I want my brother to study. I shall continue to deliver papers even if I get a job or not!”

Needless to say, Piyali got the job!

Prodigal Fathers

I have begun to observe a trend in the emerging global power – India. As I travel across the country and various parts of the State of West Bengal, I see there are many irresponsible parents who are not able to match the pressures of the modern world, and they just lose out as mentors and guides to their children, abdicating the responsibility of parenthood as accepted in Indian culture. Let us look at an example. Every Indian family knows that it is the responsibility of the parents, specially the father, to ensure that the girl children are married off in time. Now, look around you. You begin to see an alarming number of girls in their late twenties and thirties, unmarried, and remain so, simply because they have not found a proper partner either by themselves or by their parents, in spite of the fact that sex-ratio in India is clearly leaning towards the male child. I have known cases of irresponsible parents who want the salaries of their employed daughters so that they need not fulfill the obligation of sending away the daughter after marriage with the son in law, and lose the income! I have known older brothers fleecing on the earning of the sister siblings until they reach their mid thirties when the parents are dead early in life. I have seen parents not letting daughters married by defaming their own daughters so that the income continues to remain at home. Where are we heading to? What has happened to the culture of parents ensuring their girls get married in their late teens, or at least in their early twenties?

Besides the economic reason attached with it, as we have explained above, I can see two important elements that are afflicting the parents. Firstly, the pressures of parenting are so high that the elders do not have the strength to withstand the pressures of a modern world that communicates across the globe in seconds. The generation of parents we talk about are well meaning decent people, but they have not culturally out grown their age of slower communication. So, in a globalized economy, the socio-economic pressures and cultural wedge seem to be so high that the parents themselves fall into depression and they find it hard to handle the needs of their children.

The second is equally important. There is a conflict of moral values which the parents have not been able to digest and so they react by doing nothing about it. Let us take the same example of marriage again. The world of fidelity and long-lasting love of the parents has been challenged severely by increasing divorces, infidelity in marriages and rampant “love” marriages that does not give a damn to the opinion of the parents. In this cultural alienation some parents have become, in a sense, dumb spectators while few others have become arrogant exploiters of the lucrative economic benefit at the cost of women—to say, their own daughters!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Guilty Bystander

Six weeks have gone since Aila, the killer Cyclone struck parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh. I have been traveling far and wide in the last weeks, discussing and planning, coordinating with persons and corroborating information for the benefit of all. But yesterday was different. I traveled with two young men and Fr. Sarto to some parts of South 24 Parganas district. As we left Kolkata it started raining. As we reached the district, it was pouring cats and dogs. That makes all the difference for people who are already fed up of living in water. Some need the heavens to shut up, while the farmers need it to open up further.

We still saw good many people, still living in some of the huts beside the road, made of black polythene sheets given by the government. The huts were not bigger than the size of my bed - 3 ft x 6.5 ft. I could see children and women inside them, trying to cramble for space. If this is all life is all about, I feel like a guilty bystander. I wish to do more for these people. I wish to show them some ray of hope. I wish to be their friend. In the rain the whole day went without doing anything, but for visiting and meeting some volunteers who were braving the rain to be in touch with people. The volunteers had nothing to give, but to alert the people about drinking water safely, so that cholera or any other endemic disease may not take their lives. Already about 40 persons have died of diarrhea since the Aila.

No more relief materials are in sight. No food. No clothes. No gruel kitchens that were feeding thousands. Suddenly all seem to have come to a halt a month after the Aila is gone. It is time for rehabilitation. But, these people.... they are still in water. It all looks like a sea. By noon, the high tide had hit. Once again you could see the whole area was under water, as if everything was one large sea. If only I had the means....and if I have more hands... Should gods be blamed for this? Or, should we blame ourselves?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


You could always find yourself as a stranger in a foreign land. That's what you consider yourself to be. That's how others look at you to be. I ran into number of strangers while staying at Calcutta in in the past few weeks. Some of them left indelible marks. I must mention a few of them here. There was a French girl with some beautiful name...I don't remember hers. I was amazed by her commitment. Every early morning she would walk down faithfully to the Mother House (the place where Mother Teresa lived), and work there from morning to evening, and return back with a big bright smile...never complaining about the spicy food and large pieces of chicken floating in some gravy that was certainly not palatable for a French lady. I also met Fr. Bob from Michigan who came here with a group of about 12 young boys and girls from an University there. They were accompanied by also a few volunteers. Fr. Bob is a tall and bulky man for Indian standards. But calm and highly concentrated. Since I stayed in a room closer to his I could observe him better. You can say this man is highly committed and had a large heart (as big as his size) for the poor. He would never mind the heatwave that was scorching everybody here. The heat must have really taken its toll on him as he would sweat profusely throughout the day.

There was a thinner ever smiling and very sociable Michelle. She had joined a few of us as we were conversing about my own future options. And she got excited about it, and started following the story as if it was all happening to one of her own close friends. Michelle is inquisitive and curious to know how things are happening. She would always wonder at the way the India Machine (the whole country as it operates : its transport, the people, administration and everything) operates. I also found her to be very religious with strong trust in the Lord, and dedication to the poor.

I also met a Professor of Accountancy, Christina. She had traveled alone. She has some friends in Chennai. She too is equally inquisitive and extremely sharp in mind. She would always inquire to understand the why of the things. I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with her over the meals. She too would walk each day to the Shishu Bhavan (the children's home close to Mother House) to spend time with the kids, wash their clothes and care for the poor. I began to admire her over the period although I did not see her everyday. Somehow she seemed to portray a mature woman who was willing to take on the world by understanding its undercurrents of extreme poverty, channels of exploitation and discriminative social fabric.

Christina, Michelle and I planned a dinner for the night of 30 June, Tuesday. Michelle brought along with her three more volunteers. Cora (she too was with Fr. Bob's group) from Michigan, Cait from Ohio and Banks from Tennesse. Cait was the most vocal among all. She is a student of micro-biology and said she can help me out in relief work, if required anywhere. Cait is a good company, and you would never get bored in hers. Banks had been to Bangladesh to study the Psychological Impacts and Patters in Micro Finance! (Hi, I have been promoting micro finance for long....but I never thought of that.) He is tall, focussed and well meaning. Cora was not in best of her health. So, she did not talk much. I must come to know her more later.

For now, it is all a great new world.... Lord make me an instrument of your peace..... where strangers become friends, and enemies begin to speak to one another!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Protesting to Shine and have Light

I visited Malibari, the little village that I have taken up to develop, already three times in June. The first time I went I asked the caretaker Mr. George to look for a cook, and clean the place. The second time when I visited after a week on 20 June, I found that he had cleansed some of the rooms, and not the undergrowth that had become almost a jungle in the courtyard. And that day I had a long meeting with some 60 odd men and women--mostly tribals, with some Muslim and Hindu Bengali speaking communities from the neighbouring villages, speaking to them of the basics of modern development. The basics are down to three letters : BSP - Bijli, Sadak, Paani (which means : Electricity, Road and Safe Drinking Water). The village has no road, no electricity, no other communication systems, no health facilities, no drainage or sanitary systems, and of course no proper drinking water. With all such mammoth problems, it is the biggest hunting ground for me to challenge the forces of power and exploitation.

At the meeting on 20 June, we formed a small committee that would take our case to the administration. And it was decided that we would wake up, and show that we would like to protest the Gandhian way : Fast for a Day. We wished to do it in our village. We didn't want to do it in front of any of the office buildings for the reason that if the politicians can come to villages asking for votes, if they can reach polio vaccines from house to house so that no rich child is affected along with the poorer ones, then the Government can also come to the villages to hear the problems of the people.

On 27 June, we did a fast under a couple of large jackfruit trees (for those who who do not know: yes, jackfruits grow on large trees), raising slogans. Almost about 150 men, women and children turned up, and about 100 of us stayed put under the tree. I too remained with the people, lying on a plastic sheet that had been hired, in my lungi and a T-shirt, like any other ordinary villager. When the police and some of the lower rung government officials came, the people took care of them! They received the choicest of words (no abuse, but protests), and the government officials were forced to say that they would take some action within 15 days. The people had simply to say this : should we stay in dark even after 62 years of independence? Should any one? But that's how government's run. That's how people are kept in dark : in the darkness of illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, and in hunger. It is time to wake up. It is time for the tigers to roar!

N.B. : More action by people will follow in the coming weeks. Meanwhile some of the government officials are going around questioning why have these people woken up suddenly, and demanding that they get their rights within a very short period, where as for the last 20 years these people had never protested. They do not know that a leader has entered.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Long Dry Spell

"After the Storm comes the Calm", goes the old adage. But no one thought that the entire long one month since Aila hit would go without a drop of rain in most parts of West Bengal. It is monsoon season after all! The meterorological department does not have much good news as the reports go. Three years ago we had a very dry year, so much so that most parts of the districts where I worked were declared "drought hit". People say El-Nino effects have two counter products--causing dry spells in one part of the world, and increasing storm in the other. But could an Aila, though was big in magnitude, but not so destructive as El-Nino, could have created such dry weather across the country?

I remember 1986 June 21, the day I landed in Bengal, and I had crossed the Vindhyas for the first time to enter into northern part of India. It was raining all along. Day and night. And the thunders were so strong that I thought each of them was falling just next to me. Nights would pass by without proper sleep. And days would go calling on the name of St. Barbara, whom I would faithfully invoke as my mother had taught me that she can take care of all storms and thunders. But in the last five years I have not seen many thunder clouds, nor any incessent rain. It is all changing. Blame it on Climate-change!! Who is responsible? Will I get to see some good cool rain that can leave the earth wet and buzzling with activities of birds and butterflies?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Where the Waters Stink

"In to that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake". These were the words of that immortal poet Rabindranath Tagore. But today, the peace that is prayed for is in ruins. There are violent activities in Darjeeling, Nandigram, Lalgarh, and several other places of the West Bengal state alone. The people are becoming restless. There is a hope. Hope for change.

I always said it. The plan of the Marxists in West Bengal cannot stand too long. It is based on two correct premises used for wrong reasons; the correct premises are "in an utopian state everyone will give according to one's ability, and take away according to one's need" will prevail, and the other premise that "the class struggle of the proletariat will take the society to wage a war against the power of the bourgeosie". The wrong application was this : therefore ensure that maximum number of people remain proletariat and keep giving them a morsel of bread if they need a loaf, to ensure that the poor remain the poor, so that they keep voting the Communists back to power. This seem to have not paid off. The reds have lost the race in the last national elections.

One reason to this is that people of Bengal are moving a lot more than before. With very little job opportunities available in the State, even the poorest travel to far off places in India, and find the development and growth in those places. There is a general dissatisfaction that is set in the heart. The second reason why the Communism of the type that Indian Communist Party (Marxist) supports is found to fail is because the party has not given space for the poor to feel equal in dignity with the rich. Instead, it has been a struggle of the poor to raise their voices even for what is normally their right, to get access to it. Let us take for example the right to have electricity. This is a "fundamental right" whether the Constitution recognises it or not, for any ordinary citizen living in the 20th or 21st century. Without electricity how can children study, how can the women spend their evenings other than watching the famous soap operas, how can the men watch the favourites of their games, and how can medical, social, and communication systems function if not for electricity? Now look at the struggle. The government takes several years, and hell a lot of money before electrification to a village is completed, with a large sum paid in kickbacks.

Take the case of West Bengal. More than 60% of its villages are not electrified. No wonder, people are upset when they compare themselves with their southern neighbours where electricity is given free of cost for farmers, and over 80% of villages have access to electricity. This is just one example. The same is true for education, health, public utility services, administration and for every right of the citizen. One begins to wonder, "Do I need to shout each time, block the road, disrupt normal life that my voice may be heard?" If so, it is stagnant water. Stagnant waters stink. And in their stink, crocodiles and other deadly animals that eat up ordinary citizens flourish. It is time to change the stinking waters.