Wednesday, April 29, 2009

35 Kilos of Rice to the Poor

It is already just over a week in Tamilnadu. I visited some villages in the last couple of days, including my own. I came to know a very interesting difference between the Public Distribution System (PDS) of Tamilnadu and West Bengal. The Tamilnadu PDS system gives more variety of food materials than West Bengal. It includes rice, kerosine, sugar, wheat (the four items available in W. Bengal), soaps, refined palm oil, spices, tea, shampoo, maida, pulses, spice powder, mustard ... the list goes long, and provided at cheaper rate... with some of the consumer items at market price. Most importantly, rice, the main source of food for people comes with some real big benefits. The families living below poverty line (less than $1 income per day) can buy upto 35 kilograms (77 pounds) at a rate of one rupee per kilo, and all other families can get upto 20 kilograms at one rupee per kilo.

I also noticed something else. The number of beggars is minimal, in comparison to what I used to see 10 years ago. Although I saw some child beggars on the streets, in bus stations and in railway stations, (a good number of them from North of India, and not original Tamil population!), I did not see even a single child worker in any shop till now. That's really amazing, how many governments and people have taken up pro-active steps to ensure eradication of some of these social evils. Today is a break day for me. I plan to take good rest....spending at least 12 hours in bed!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Surprises All Around

I was traveling from Erode Bus Stand... which is just a district headquarters in Tamil Nadu, with much larger and a lot better organized Bus Terminus than that of Kolkata (Calcutta) on Saturday 25 April to a suburb of the town to meet some of my relatives. The bus was pretty crowded and I had to stand. When the Bus Conductor (In India the driver of a bus does not disburse tickets as in the case of many other Western countries.) came to me, I asked for a ticket to "Agrahaaram", my destination, and asked him how much it was. He said, "Two". I said, "Pardon! You mean it is two rupees." He replied, "Yes, it is two". I got a shock. Some of the governments in India...specially my own state West Bengal boasts of dropping the tickets by even 50 paise (100 paise = 1 rupee; 50 rupees = $ 1) and make big announcements. And there the lowest rate in a bus is 4 rupees. But here, in another Indian state the cost of travel is as less as 2 rupees. May I know who eats up two more rupees in West Bengal?

I have traveled sufficiently in the last seven days all over Tamil Nadu. I noticed something very important. Most shops had list of items available in their shop (even the street stalls had this), and the cost of each item on a large display board. If India thinks of "Right to Information", efforts like these must be promoted, supported and copied in all other places. This tells the customer even before getting into the shop what he or she will have to pay for a particular item. So, the customer has the right to choose!

Practically every evening I have been eating in smaller hotels in Madurai town or elsewhere. I have also visited tens of shops in the last week. In some of the shops I found a display board which read, "We do not employ and Child labourers". That is quite interesting. With so much of emphasis on eradication of child labour in India unless Governments insist on displays and actual implementation of such eradication, things cannot improve, and the dream "Education for All", will just remain a dream.  I have not seen any child labourers till now. I enquired my nephews if shops employ children as labourers. They replied that it is very rare and it involves so much of fine imposed on shops that people are afraid. But, still in many places domestic child labourers are prevalent, and commercial child labourers do exist if the police in a particular police station area is corrupt.  However, they opined, "it may not be as much as in West Bengal or many other north Indian states."

I am really happy on the one side that some states in India are taking very pro-active steps to curtail social evils, while I am really sad on the other hand to see that many states remain blind enough to let such evils grow into deep cancerous wounds.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Amazing Temple Town

I have traveled upteen number of times to Madurai, the second largest city in the state of Tamilnadu, south of India. Each time this city seem to unravel new opportunities to people who come in, open up new charm in the way traffic is managed, and the way municipalities and corporations function. With very poor local administrative systems in West Bengal, it is really nice to see relatively clean roads, people with habits to dispose of waste more hygienically, and traffic moving at a much better speed with commuters and drivers apparently respecting each other, with just one or two policemen to control traffic even on busiest junctions (as everyone seems to obey the traffic signal), and the number of bye-pass roads that take you quickly out of the town to put you on the highways. Still the area surrounding the famous Meenakshi temple is crowded, but you do not get to see too many shops and stalls that clog the pavements in Kolkata or other towns in Bengal. I am also told that in this state no one would die of hunger in spite of the fact that there is very little food production in relation to the States that live on Gangetic plains. The reason : the government provides 20 kilos of rice to every family (irrespective of whether they are below poverty line or not) at a cost of just one rupee per kilo! Many people told me that the quality of rice is good, and still not many people buy it from the regulated shops, because people have enough! And still more, some of them buy it and give it to the poorest families absolutely free so that the poorest can have enough to eat throughout the month; or they just do not lift the rice simply because it is availble on the reason that, if they take what they do not need, that only adds to the burden of the government that subsidises the food grains for the poor. My own sister's family bargains on that, as they cultivate two crops of rice each year.  You can also see local buses taking passengers in the middle of the night all over the city. I have seen it almost all over Tamilnadu, making travel safer, faster and need-based. One final touch... the government gives houses to the poor, worth rupees 100,000 rupees absolutely free, provided you have some means to advance part of it to begin construction. A footnote : people had one complaint -- inspite of the fact that the Central government has made many rules governing the banks asking them to provide credit, the banks are not giving, and thus creating artificial credit crunch. Will the governments look at the problems of the people?

Meetings in Kolkata

The week after Easter ended with lots of accomplishments. On Easter Monday was the discussion in ABCD office on preparing a project to be sent to European Union specially for Skill Development for economic improvement. Tuesday, was not very bad, as I spent time in working on understanding further the EU application procedures, and even managed to get ABCD registered. That is a lot for the day, as EU requires quite a lot of details. In the evening traveled to meet an old friend who used to work in Raiganj and now works for the Government of India in a nearby town. I stayed with him the next day, and traveled back to Kolkata on Thursday, 16 April.  The next two days (Thursday and Friday) were extremely busy days with training and discussions with the District Coordinators and Block Supervisors of Disaster Preparedness program supported by Caritas India and CRS in West Bengal.  On 17 night, I traveled to Chennai by flight, thanks to ABCD, and was received by cousin Arul Anban. The whole night we discussed the software project which we plan to build for MIS of the Disaster Preparedness project. And the next day, we worked on preliminaries, prepared some Masters, and then I traveled by bus to Madurai, the temple town, about which I shall speak in the next post.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter and Liberative Action

Easter is definitely after the long period of lent that calls upon us to reflect upon the darker side of human living, pain of carrying the burdens for others, and the cross that lies heavily on the poor who cannot raise their voices. Yet, it is time to say "Happy Easter", because it brings us reasons to live in hope, break the shackles of death and causes of oppression, to be liberated in the true sense, to be beyond the boundaries of exploitative structures of society. It is Spring. It is time for new life to begin.

As part of this reflection, I present before you a part of the homily given by Archbishop Romero, at the fifth Sunday of Lent, the last Sunday mass he celebrated before he was brutally murdered on the altar just days later :

Easter is a shout of victory! No one can extinguish that life that Christ resurrected. Not even death and hatred against Him and against his Church will be able to overcome it. He is the victor! Just as he will flourish in an Easter of unending resurrection, so it is necessary to also accompany him in Lent, in a Holy Week that is cross, sacrifice, martyrdom… Happy are those who do not become offended by their cross!

Lent, then, is a call to celebrate our redemption in that difficult complex of cross and victory. Our people are very qualified… to preach to us of the cross; but all who have Christian faith and hope know that behind this Calvary is our Easter, our resurrection, and that is the hope of the Christian people.

Today, as diverse historical projects emerge for our people, we can be sure that victory will be had by the one that best reflects the plan of God. And this is the mission of the Church… to see how the plan of God is being reflected or disdained in our midst…

That is why I ask the Lord during the week, as I gather the cry of the people, the aches of so much crime, and the ignominy of so much violence, that He give me the suitable word to console, to denounce, to call for repentance; and even though I may continue to be a voice crying in the desert, I know that the Church is making the effort to fulfill its mission.

How easy it is to denounce structural injustice, institutionalized violence, social sin! And it is true, this sin is everywhere, but where are the roots of this social sin? In the heart of every human being. Present-day society is a sort of anonymous world in which no one is willing to admit guilt, and everyone is responsible. We are all sinners, and we have all contributed to this massive crime and violence in our country. Salvation begins with the human person, with human dignity, with saving every person from sin. And in Lent this is God’s call: Be converted!

Today our nation is living its own Exodus. Today we, too, are journeying to our liberation through the desert, where cadavers and anguished pain are devastating us, and where many suffer the temptation of those who were walking with Moses and who wanted to turn back… God desires to save the people making a new history… What is not repeated are the circumstances, the opportunities to which we are witnesses.

The true solution has to fit into the definitive plan of God. Every solution we seek-a better land distribution, a better administration and distribution of wealth, a political organization structured around the common good of citizens-these must be sought always within the context of definitive liberation… Without God, there can be no true concept of liberation. Temporary liberations, yes; but definitive, solid liberations-only people of faith can reach them.

I would like to appeal in a special way to the men of the Army, and in particular to the troops of the National Guard, the Police, and the garrisons. Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God should prevail that says: “Do not kill!” No soldier is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. It is time now that you recover your conscience and obey its dictates rather than the command of sin.

The Church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of the dignity of the human person, cannot remain silent before so much abomination. We want the government to seriously consider that reforms mean nothing when they come bathed in so much blood. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: “Cease the repression!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Dying River - Lack of Water in the Ganges affects Electricity Production !

The Ganges and Brahmaputra are called the "living" rivers because they are never supposed to die, as they flow from the melting glaciers of the Himalayas. The rivers are also life-giving to millions of small farmers who live and work along the thousands of kilometers these rivers and their innumerable branches inundate. The State of West Bengal in the eastern part of India is reeling under severe power shortage due to deficit in production of electricity which is directly related to lack of water that is available on the Ganges which is the largest feeder for the number of thermal power stations that lie across the state. So, the number of hours of power-cuts is increasing each day with temperature soaring high. 

The depleting Gangetic glaciers which is losing about two (1.3 sq.mile) each year is clearly due to global warming and environmental degradation. If we do not save the planet soon, the days of Gangetic desert may not be far away. I would not like to be apocalyptic. It is just a warning bell for all of us.