Saturday, December 18, 2010

Vagabond

The last months since May 2010 have gone quickly, with pains, burdens, relief and a sense of humor. The months passed all too quickly, without writing much in my blog through the year. But the year also gave me opportunity to explore myself. Two great things I learnt really make sense to my life. I had left South India while barely I was touching 16, after reading for several years about the plight of the people in the North, in the states of Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. At that time I just wanted to "do something" for them. Over the years, specially in late 90's and early part of this decade I was being sucked into systems that focused on administration. I remember still very well how I had dreamed to be a mendicant going around assisting people to regain their dignity. I have done all that and much more, from positions of power and influence. But, the higher I grew, the farther I was pushed from people. I am not sure if this the tragedy of working for the people!

The last months have brought me back into LIFE! I travel. Travel a lot.... I travel in passenger trains to reduce the cost of travel, like any other ordinary mortal, I travel in public jeeps and buses, I do not grumble about lost time, I leave early, I talk to people to understand their pains, I offer them helping hands. And whenever I am not giving a training or not having someone invited me, I ensure to be in a over-night bus or train. And so I get a place to sleep! Waaw! In the process, the first of my learning is about the vanity of space. There is so much of scam and scandal going on in the country relating to occupying land. Well, all this is vanity! All that you will have is a space of 6 ft x 2 ft for about 90 years or so on this earth, if you live long.

The second learning is beginning to dawn on me. How important is religion set against the poverty, vulnerability and hunger of people that I see all around. Or, I would place it this way. How much is my religion and religiosity relevant to the needs of the poor? To put it plainly, what is more important among the two? It is beginning to hurt. I have lived long enough immersed in religion. (I do not question faith. Faith is perfect.) But what has my religion done to the poor to lift them out of their bondage in spite of all the wealth and resources it owns? Has it done at all? Yes, it has. Could it have done better? A lot more. Did my organized religion come in the way of me doing more for the poor? True. There is a clog....a huge one.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Obama is Here

For the convenience of all my friends in the U.S.A., your President Barack Obama is here in India. He arrived on Saturday morning Indian time, in the financial capital of India, Mumbai and then moved on to Delhi for meetings with the President and Prime Minister of India. Statistically speaking:
  • The President's entourage included over 240 businessmen from the U.S. The U.S. government
  • This is the longest that the U.S. President has stayed outside the United States in a single country!
  • He signed business deals worth over 10 billion USD, which is expected to create 54,000 jobs in the U.S.
  • In Mumbai he stayed at the Taj Hotel which was attacked during the Mumbai terrorist attack.
  • The U.S. has removed controls on India for transfer and use of dual-use nuclear technology (which means, nuclear technology and products that can be used for both energy and nuclear weaponry)
  • Several Indian defense related organisations have been removed from the export controls of the U.S. so that these organisations can trade with U.S. companies
  • The President announces that, India has emerged as a key player in the globe, against hitherto remarks, "India is emerging as a global player".
  • An U.S. navy ship, several navy boats, armed men, 8 dogs, and of course the Air Force One, the presidential cadillac were all brought from the U.S. besides the unprecedented air, navy and ground security given by the Indian government.
  • Cost of the entire travel: according to media reports, it is 900 crores per day x 3 days. In other words, the U.S. government spent 240 million dollars each day, and so over 750 million dollar is said to have been spent on the President's visit to India.
  • He also announced that the U.S. would support India's bid to have permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
  • He mentioned that "safe havens in Pakistan for terrorists" must be dismantled, and refused to internationalize the Kashmir dispute bringing cheers to the Indian media.
No one knows, exactly how much did India spend on the President's visit.

Let us end this post on a lighter note. Lot of people in Mumbai and Delhi visited the airports to see the Air Force One. When they were asked why they were so interested in the hi-tech plane, one of them said, "because his Presidential carrier has been better than his career" as President. Another joke says: President Obama will never visit Bangalore. Because, it says, "those buggers in Bangalore will force him to outsource even his presidency, that too at $ 10 per hour!"

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tragedies of the Future

A new trend in tragic accidents seem to be taking the form of disasters. The State of Orissa has reported more deaths due to lightning than any other natural disaster for the year 2009. In West Bengal, the cyclone Aila that hit 18 districts, affected over 6.5 million people left only139 dead in May 2009; but the single capsize of the boat in Muriganga river (in the Sunderbans, West Bengal, India) on Saturday, 30 October seem to have over taken that, although only 67 bodies have been found so far. It is feared that since the accident site is on the mouth of the river meeting the Bay of Bengal, the bodies might have been carried into the sea.

Allegedly there were about 240 persons, mostly women and children on a boat that can carry a maximum of 80 persons, with actual capacity for 50 or so. Similar tragedies, with smaller number of deaths seem to happen almost every month in some part of West Bengal, mostly in the Sunderbans where transport by water is the common mode of travel. The people seem to have not learned the lessons from previous disasters: everyone wants to go by the first boat available, even if that meant risking lives. The boat owners and boatmen have never learned a lesson, as there has been no criminal action initiated on any of them in any of the past tragedies. And then, there are what is called as the Ghat Management Committees. They maintain the arrival and departure of boats. I have traveled hundreds of times in the Sunderbans. I have invariably noticed that these committees seem to have only two tasks: a) Collect the toll from the passengers and the boats; b) Arrange for a big Durga Puja pandal during the Pujas! These bodies must be legalized through the local government bodies (They are currently mostly let out on lease!), and must be charged with criminal negligence in future tragedies if such tragedies take place due to over-crowding. Then you have the policemen. In the case of the Saturday tragedy, the people from the south western islands of South 24 Parganas district had gone to attend a religious festival in Hijli Sheriff in the eastern coast of Purba (East) Medinipur district, and they were returning from the festival. There were at least couple of policemen in Hijli Sheriff who were near the site of embarking into the boat. What were they doing? Cases on criminal negligence must be started on all policemen on duty at Hijli Sheriff. Only such enforcement of law will send out strong warning to callous people around.

Well, after all, we are in a country where the railway minister makes huge noise against the ruling party, but her ministry has not prosecuted even one single person in the tragic rail accident that took place at Sainthia three months ago. Be on the opposition or in the ruling party, rule of law and enforcement of it are essential for good governance. God save West Bengal!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The North Bengal Odyssey


The week starting from 18 Oct was entirely spent in North Bengal. I visited Raiganj, Kaliyaganj, Bolaigaon, Chopra--all with a plan to meet women self help groups so that poverty can be eradicated from some of the villages. Couple of friends from Netherlands reached Bagdogra airport on 19 Oct, and I accompanied them to a tea production company as well. Our discussions centered around jute products prepared by women and marketing of the same so that the women can get fair price for their products. It was also soothing to note how I am growing up as a person...without many tags! People used to expect from me so many things. But now all that they want is my guidance, support and ideas. I also got some time to research on improving the SMS based early warning system that I started. It needs a lot more effort and support.

In the form of a human person

While walking on the street last afternoon I heard a rickshaw-wallah speaking to another in Bengali, "We are not humans. We only have the form of humans." May be they were grumbling about the hot weather at the noon hour and their predicament to pull the rickshaw. But there is something more to it. Are they really living with the dignity of humans? While I travel around the state, which I do a lot more than before, I see children, women, aged persons and at times even younger ones--all living a form of the humans, with least semblance to living with dignity. It hurts. It hurts to see poverty. It spurs your emotions. It makes you feel how vulnerable you are. It also exposes your helplessness in handling such issues of poverty and indignity. God help them!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Threat on the Wheels

An incident at the Baghajatin railway station, about 10 kilometers from Sealdah in Kolkata, made me write this. I had just arrived at the station after a meeting with UNICEF and Ramakrishna Mission officials, to leave for Sealdah, and then to look for a train to go to North Bengal. When I reached there on the Platform No. 1, I saw an old man, a lady in her thirties and a child of 4 years old, getting down from the same platform on to the track, crossing it, walking towards platform No. 2, so that they can climb it. This is a short cut that thousands of people take in Indian railway stations, specially I have come to see it a lot in northern states. Suddenly, I heard people shouting, and I turned back to look. I saw the horror coming! A local electrical train was fast approaching platform No. 2. The train was trying to pull herself up on the platform, the child was still on the tracks and the old man was just in the middle, not knowing what he would do. Suddenly, someone pulled the man to the side, and took the child and jumped on the platform. And the woman had been given a helping hand. And the train passed them, and came to a halt. It all happened in about 5 – 7 seconds. I began to wonder. What was all this about? Why do people risk their lives to catch a train? In last month alone at least 4 persons have died in three different train accidents in Kolkata suburbs. In all three, the persons were talking on cell phone, had crossed the rail-crossing although the gate was closed, and walked on the track without realizing that the train was coming. In one of the accidents, an young college going girl died, trying to save her friend, taking the death toll to four! What a tragedy! What priorities have come about? What is more than life and love?

Yudhya (War) and Ayodhya (No War Zone)!

On 28 September, my friends from Netherlands enquired about the verdict on Ayodhya- a place of worship under legal battle for over 60 years, a bone of contention between Muslims and Hindus, and a vile concoction of politics and religion in the hands of politicians looking for cheap issues other than poverty reduction and development. The place is called Ayodhya, which itself means “A place of No War”! It was the place of big battle almost 20 years ago, when the tower of the mosque was brought down by the right wing Hindu fundamentalists. It also lead to the death of hundreds of Muslims and Hindus in various riots across the country for the next two years in separate incidents. It led to distrust between the two communities over a long period, which was further strengthened due to various international terrorist activities and the infamous Mumbai attack couple of years ago. Why should a No-War zone turn into a War Zone? And become a cause of death and spilling of blood of hundreds of people, and leaving many crying? In the land of Gandhi and Buddha, we have not learned to forgive. In the land that taught ahimsa (non-violence), we have learnt to fight for what we consider as dharma, and we were taught to fight for dharma by some of our deities. Look at most of our deities. They all spilled blood, to take revenge…to establish justice. More like the Old Testament! But, dharma is something that binds together. In the name of fighting for dharma, (what should unite us together), alas, we have divided ourselves. Religion has taught us wisdom. We have rejected wisdom and religion and have given into revenge and bloodshed. Call it, Murder!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Suggestions for Risk Reduction

I traveled a lot into the Sunderbans and in Paschim Medinipur, one of the most backward districts in West Bengal (currently known for notorious attacks by the left wing extremists, known as Maoists). In my travels I found two of the benefits intended to help the poor have not done good. I wish someone takes note of them: a) Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (Prime Minister's Rural Roads Scheme). This is supposed to help the backward villages to get connected through a metal road with the nearest State or National Highway, so that they can be linked, and receive benefits of transportation and communication. While working on the Chaulkuri plan in West Medinipur, people said that the contractors do not want to do the road work because carrying cost is so high that they do not benefit in any way. I realized it badly while visiting villages in Sunderbans, where the roads are mostly brick-laid, or just mud roads, although the villages are densely populated. There is a need to review the "per kilometer" cost approved within the scheme. b) My second observation, which I had indeed observed long ago, and I begin to feel the difficulty of the people as I work more and more in the deep villages of the Sunderbans is to revamp the Rural Ambulance Scheme. According to the project, an ambulance jeep is provided to the local primary health center or to a non-profit organization, either from the government directly or through Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS), so that the jeep can be used for transportation of persons in serious illness or emergency for medical care. But, the people in Sunderbans are living in islands. There are hardly any roads, and even the brick-laid roads are just about 2 meters wide. Secondly, most islands do not have hospitals! So, how to transport these people? By a jeep? What these people need is high speed good boat ambulances that can take them from one island to another, or to the main land for emergency care and services. May be I should start acquiring one or two and show how it can be used. Any one listening? (I had the experience of driving a speed boat around Tapps island, in WA.... Ha... I saw so many speed boats there. I should steal a few! Ha...ha...ha...)

Planning for a Village

Part of August and a large portion of September: I spent time in Sabang block of Paschim Medinipur district. UNICEF asked me to help the local panchayat to help them plan for development and disaster risk reduction. While working in Raiganj I have seen how my staff used to be involved in preparing some disaster related plan. Some of them were accepted by the local government (called panchayat), and some were not. Often those were "0" budget plans, which did not involve any financial commitment from the local government. But, now, I am making a very detailed plan running into its 30th page already, with lots of data. Hah...talking of pages! Do not be afraid. It is all in simple boxes covering tens of subjects within seven major category. (I can not share the plan now with anyone, as this plan is to be accepted by the government at the local level and at the Block.) The acceptance of the plan would mean, the government is willing to act on the plan. I am really happy with the way it has come about. Soon, it should be ready: with some GIS maps, beautiful graphics, and excellent suggestions for development. Thanks to all of you for waiting so patiently!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

NAKED FAITH, GARBED PRACTICE

I believe, it was some time in the year 2003, there was a big noise in Raiganj and its surroundings about a sadhu coming down from the Himalayas, and going around the cities and country side in India. And then one day, while I was on my motorcycle, I found a great crowd of about 600 – 700 people following a naked man who had his hair flowing, walking stiff, with only a small trishul in his hand. There was a group of police men surrounding him, with another lot of police following on two vehicles. This is a man who had forgotten everything, and had no botheration about his nakedness being known to the world. He is Buddha, in a sense. But did he need so much of protection, if he had left everything? I wonder. Now, contrast this with what I saw on 14 Aug 2010 morning, the eve of Indian independence day. I was rushing in and out of Howrah railway station to look for a local train to go a little known village called Chaulakuri, in Sabang block of Paschim Medinipur district. I was on a mission, as UNICEF has requested me to support their partner non-profit organization to help them develop a detailed village disaster management plan. As I was getting out of one gate of the station to go to another gate of the station, I saw a plainclothesman was beating a young man who was naked, just a skeleton covered with skin, barely in his twenties, crumbling, and trying to hide his nakedness on the floor against a wall! It was so pathetic to see that the plainclothesman was beating him, and trying to push him out. I had nothing with me. I opened my briefcase, took the simple towel I had, and threw it on the man. I had to rush to catch the train! The people waited there. And here is a man who needs attention. In a dilemma, all that I could do was just that. To hide his shamelessness.

But why was the policeman in plain clothes beating him up? I could never answer this to myself. May be he should have walked with a sign of religion in his hand….and walked straight with a garland on his neck!

Our country is full of hypocrisy. And religion and authority have grown to support it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why we don't need a house

It is nearly three months since I left inter-agency group and started working directly for the people. In the three months I have hardly required a home, in strict sense of the term. I have been on the move, sleeping in buses, trains, families, institutions, hotels and occasionally in friends' homes. I have also begun to realize that actually you don't need a house! It only captures you and binds you to a geographic location. We are born free. I am able to freely move, wash my clothes, eat my food....and importantly I am able to be with the people and for the people. Yes, that is what that actually gives me the energy to live like this. Once you begin to think all the time about people and their needs, all your needs disappear. It is just a world, that can offer you everything, and you choose to have only what you need. You begin to understand the difference between want and need, greed and giving!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

ICT for Early Warning

Catholic Relief Services offered my ticket and stay in Hyderabad to attend a meeting with the scientists from the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (www.incois.gov.in). The whole day of discussions on 11 Aug 2010 was an inspiring one, as I found ways and means to get more information in shorter time, which would mean I can send out alerts earlier than normal.

Although previously the early warnings sent out by me was limited to cyclones, floods, river erosions, probable embankment breaches, and possible landslides, now we will be able to send out alerts on tide heights and wind speeds. This would be really interesting! This would also mean I will require a person everyday to help me out in sending the information to various villages. I shall work out the modalities of sharing the information. (For now, it is trade secret! I am not going to reveal it on the blog!) Let me see how it works out! I will have to check out with some organization to support financially for this venture, as I may require about 60,000 - 80,000 per year for this purpose.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Indexing Poverty

What is the number of people living below poverty line even after making adjustments and attempts to hide the poverty in India, that has the second largest number of billionaires in the world? It counts for about 645 million people or 55% of India's population made up of ten markers of education, health, standard of living, access to basic services, income and achievement levels. This is more than the entire population of the United States of America.

Well, there are 140 million from just 8 north Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattishgarh! This is more than all the poor of the Africa put together! Many international humanitarian organizations are walking away from India, targeting on Africa and South America. Even some of my own friends from America and Europe feel that the poverty is high in those continents. True. In those continents, poverty is geographically concentrated. But here, it is widespread, making it more difficult to control.

Nutritional deprivation is overwhelmingly the largest factor in overall poverty, unsurprising given that half of all children in India are under-nourished according to the National Family Health Survey III (2005-06). Close to 40% of those who are defined as poor are also nutritionally deprived.

The "intensity" of the poverty in parts of India is equal to, if not worse than, that in Africa. When Indian Madhya Pradesh state, which has a population of 70 million, was compared with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the war-racked African state of 62 million inhabitants, the two were found to have near-identical levels of poverty.

The Scheduled Tribes have the highest MPI (0.482), almost the same as Mozambique, and a headcount (the percentage of people who are MPI poor) of 81 per cent. The Scheduled Castes have a headcount of 66 per cent and their MPI is a bit better than Nigeria. Fifty-eight per cent of other Backward Castes are MPI poor. About one in three of the remaining Indian households are multi-dimensionally poor. In West Bengal (MPI = 0.32), 58 per cent of people are MPI poor, and they are on average deprived in 54 per cent of the dimensions or weighted indicators

The survey found that in Madhya Pradesh poverty levels were higher because of malnutrition. In Congo, access to schooling was a problem.

The study's conclusions will reinforce claims that distribution of the wealth generated by India's rapid economic growth – recently around 10% year on year – is deeply unequal. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and Ms. Sonia Gandhi, the chief of the ruling Congress Party have repeatedly said they want to see "inclusive" growth.

Poverty has long proved difficult to define. The World Bank bases its definition on household income and estimates that a quarter of the developing world lives on $1.25 (85p) a day or less. However, relying simply on money excluded everything that is outside the cash economy and didn't look at issues such as housing or access to safe water, or access to education and standard of living.

A comparison of the state of Madhya Pradesh and the sub-Saharan nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which have close to the same population and a similar MPI (0.389 and 0.393 respectively), shows that nutritional deprivation, arguably the most fundamental part of poverty, in Madhya Pradesh far exceeds that in the DRC. Nutritional deprivation contributes to almost 20% of the state's MPI and only 5% of the DRC's MPI. MP's drinking water, electricity and child mortality levels are better than that of the DRC.


The new index is also designed to track variations within countries much better. Based on the MPI, Bihar is by far the poorest of any state in the country, with 81.4% of its population defined as poor, which is close to 12% more than the next worst stateof Uttar Pradesh. In Kerala (the best in the country) there are only 16% of the population who are MPI poor.

In Down South with the Poor

The last couple of weeks went in training of over 100 villagers in the Sunderbans, across two blocks in disaster risk reduction. Some of them had traveled for over an hour on boat to come for the trainings! It is encouraging to become more and more a part pf their lives. In Sonagaon, I was amazed by the "helplessness and hopelessness" exhibited by many people, as they kept repeating that they cannot overcome the kind of deluge exhibited by films on climate change. A man in his sixties even pointed out that they would be wiped out in 2012. He referred to the movie with the same name! Interesting. If only positive acts of coping can be equally included in these movies, people would both get entertained and educated. There was also certain amount of pessimism about the administration, governments and issues of fighting poverty. But by the end of the day, I had managed to turn them towards a positive vision.

Nothing is as contagious as courage. But, if the people are not ready to take the fight on, nothing else is worse than that. Once they begin to feel that they can over come the negative impacts of climate change, when they accept that they can turn the tide and make the world work on the positive acts to reduce global warming, and have the strength to remain prepared for disasters, they will survive--as humans, even if, as people living with lesser dignity.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Rediscovering the Journey

We have heard in the Gospels saying, "The foxes have their holes, the birds have their nests. But the Son of Man does not have a place to lay his head". It was only to mean that he had no specific place "as his own". When I left southern India in 1986 I thought I would be just traveling, probably with a bag, going around villages and towns, brings joy and God's love in hundreds of houses. I never thought I would be doing some "settled" works. The last weeks have taught me, actually Jesus is right. I do not need to be settled to do what is good. In the last 40 days I have never been short of place to sleep or to eat, as people have always wanted me and my help in whatever good thing they want to do. I have traveled from the top of Himalayas to the Sunderbans, from Kolkata to some of the most undeveloped villages in West Bengal, from the corners of a seminary to some of the families of friends of other religions. I have had no problem in staying or in serving the poor. The last month has seen me supporting the building of the houses of 12 very poor people who could not even gather the broken tins and roofs the tornado left in April 2010, starting an early warning system, that can be expanded across the country and can be made multi-lingual, and conducted special trainings and facilitation for over 10 days covering 100 persons in the 40 days, besides motivating several others.

When I did not need to sleep on a bed, I found the trains and buses as comfortable places to lay my head. And I have always found time to wash and iron my clothes, giving me enough time to refresh myself. Soon, I would be in more places, with the poor, the vulnerable, teaching them the art of surviving disasters, improving their livelihood and educating themselves to have access to government resources.

It doesn't matter...if I have a home or not! The world is my territory, and all people in it are my own.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Launching SMS Based Early Warning System

My friends, I am glad to inform you that with some necessary assistance from some of my close friends, and with enormous encouragement from many, I will be launching a SMS based Early Warning System on 01 July 2010. The system is based on Microsoft .Net Framework and will work to serve the poor and vulnerable, and to inform the funding agencies and non-profit organizations with Early Warnings and Alerts in times of emergencies. The service will be provided entirely free. (I have initially spent about Rupees 40,000, and I believe the running cost will be restricted to about 20,000 rupees per year.) I hope to work on this system for the next three months, strengthen it, and then hand it over to an organization who would continue the activity on my behalf, and for the benefit of the people. By the time of launch, we will be having over 1,000 persons already registered to receive the SMS. I hope you all appreciate this! Every message comes with the sender id: AlertIND.

The next thing I want to do is to set up community managed Rain Monitoring System, with simple gadgets to measure rain.... Anyone has an idea, or a simple gadget for that? I wish to set it up across at least 400 locations in the State, and interlink them, so that every severe variation can be noted, and informed as a Warning to the people. (May be students in Seattle or Western or Cornell or in Germany should go for this challenge!)

Monuments, Cathedrals and Tombs

I have begun to wonder why most monuments are relating to death or murder, and not relating to life and peace. We have in India, Taj Mahal, the finest of monuments meant as tomb for the wife of emperor Shah Jahan. There are hundreds of them across the country and the globe that mark similar things. We have the Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, St.Thomas’ Mount in Chennai, and the tombs of several kings and queens across the country. You can also get to see the memorials built on war sites! Memory of the victor having taken lives of many. There is something different in Christian religion. We have the tombs to bury the dead. And the Cathedrals, normally the biggest ones in a diocese, and known for their grandeur and artistic worth, are the burying places of the Bishops! And in their effort to have the best of places in the cathedral, and to leave them name for posterity, some of the Bishops build grand structures, only to build them as “graveyards of bishops”. Monuments, Cathedrals and Graveyards, all three seem to have one thing in common: the dirt is buried underneath. [This is not written to hurt the sentiments of anyone, but as an expression of deep sadness because a Cathedral is being built with millions of dollars, and the poor workers are not getting paid even 30 dollars a month!]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Anawim of Yahweh and Worship of Money

As I write this, my favorite channel CNN-IBN is having a discussion on “Business of Spirituality”. And that made me write something that I have been reflecting about for the last three years. My mind goes back to Raiganj. The teachers teaching in the schools of catholic Diocese of Raiganj are getting paid about 1200 rupees (30 dollars) a month! The domestic workers who work from morning 6.00 a.m to evening 8.00 p.m are getting paid between 30 – 35 dollars a month. And the church is building a huge Cathedral, worth over 80 million rupees. Most people have estimated that it would hit about 100 million rupees by the time it is completed.

We have spiritual pedagogues and demagogues controlling religion and the religion is getting capsulated in the arms of a few. There is a move from worshipping God of the Poor and respecting the Poor of the Lord (Anawim of Yahweh) to a vulgar worship of wealth.

I read in a poster written by the Dravida Kazhagam party in the southern temple city of Madurai about five years back in the week of celebrating the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi. It said, “We have girls who cannot afford marriage once, why do we need marriage to a goddess every year?” That is it. Why do we need huge temples for a God who lives among the poor who cannot afford brick walls that can withstand simple storms that destroyed 90,000 houses and killed 45 in just 30 minutes by throwing down their mud houses just couple of months ago? Before I moved to Kolkata I had written to the Bishop of Raiganj requesting him to increase the salary of teachers to 40 dollars a month (Rupees 1500) and the salary of domestic workers working in the children’s hostels and presbyteries to rupees 1800 (45 dollars). Well, understandably, I got no reply. Long live Mammon!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Adieu

Following is the copy of my letter to all the partners of State Inter Agency Group - West Bengal:

Dear Friends,

Best regards from Puthumai !

This is my last mail as the State Coordinator of the State Inter Agency Group - West Bengal ! The State IAG-WB will have a full time coordinator shortly. Whereas I will be leaving as the Coordinator, I shall continue to support and strengthen the State IAG-WB to the best of my ability from wherever I am.

I am also glad to inform you that in June 2010, I wish to spend the time on setting up a state-wide SMS based geographically sensitive Early Warning System. I hope this will benefit you and the community. The system will be fully functional from 01 July 2010. Anyone can register to receive Early Warning updates. The very idea of this is to give real time geographically sensitive Early Warning (e.g. in case of a possible embankment breach, send alert to people of the area who are under threat, and heads of INGOs/NGOs working in the area only.). You are most welcome to register yourself by sending in a message "START ALERT" from your phone to 09547997119. Kindly encourage your staff and community members to register to this. I would like to keep this as an absolutely free service to reach to the last person in the village. Your suggestions are most welcome. I will be available for your contacts on my personal E-mail address: raigunj@gmail.com. The information collected for generating these alerts will be, from the subscribers to this system, community, IMD, Government and other relevant websites and media.

Coming to this departure of mine, I remember the circumstances which brought me to Kolkata and to take this challenging task. I remember with sorrow the hundreds and thousands of people who bore the brunt of Cyclone Aila. I sincerely thank Fr. I.P.Sarto, then Director of ABCD, the Convener organization of the State IAG-WB and Ms. Parnasri Roy Chowdhury for placing their confidence in me, and calling me in to shoulder this responsibility. Their guidance and support throughout the year will never be forgotten. I thank Fr. Reginald Fernandes, who as Director of Seva Kendra and later as State IAG-WB Convener since September, arranged my stay for the entire year, and guided me with enormous freedom to work and succeed.

I must thank the Honorable Joint Secretary, Disaster Management Department, Govt. of West Bengal, Sri Debabrata Pal, IAS, who has helped me with guidance and suggestions at various occasions. I thank the officials of the Disaster Management Department, and specially Mr. Himadri Maitra with whom I worked very closely. I also thank Mr. Subhasish Debnath of UNDP who has been my heart and voice with the government, and has always chipped in with such useful information that helped me achieve beyond my capabilities.

I must thank Ms. Lori Calvo, Mr. S.N. Dave, Mr. Nasir Ateeq, and Ms. Moumita Dastidar of UNICEF. It is they who helped me strengthen my technical skills, and with financial support and guidance at every step. Thanks to the entire UNICEF family of Unicef Kolkata Field Office.

I thank all the partners across the State. If at all I have achieved anything, it is because of you. All that I am, all that I am capable of, and all that I have come to be is because of your constant support, love, assistance and guidance. It would certainly be unfair if I miss any of your names in listing. But, I think, I must list at least persons who have made a great impression in the past 12 months: Anurag, Shubhro and Soma of WWF, Campoo and Logun of World Vision, Banku B Sarkar, Bhaswar, and Bipul of Oxfam, Nirmal of Rama Krishna Mission, M.A.Wohab of SHIS, Dr. Aniruddha Dey and Sutapa Ghosh of PRISM, Sanjay Rozario, Pallab and Bapi of Caritas India, Subhrokhali, Dr. Garai and Dr. Vijayakumar of Lutheran World Service, Taraknath of CARE India, Kasturi, Rama and Rajshree of CRS, Praful Rao of Save the Hills, Prof. Chandan Majumdar and Niladri of Jadavpur University, Ms. Gargi Mitra of CII, Fr. Soosaiappan of Palli Unnayan Samity, Dr. Subhomoy Pal and Arup of CINI, Chittaranjan Mondal and Surajit Neogi of Action Aid, Raja, Noel, Soumick, Lucas Gomes and Shubhra of ABCD, Ajanta Dey of NEWS, Ajitha Menon of ANI and Amitava of PTI, Samsur Alam of BMCDM, Anshuman of DRCSC, Shibani of Indienhilfe, Sebastian and Mamata Sahu of Concern Worldwide, Aloke Ghosh of CASA, Sandeep of Childline Foundation, Niraj of Children International, Vikas, Vikrant and Parimita of Sphere India, Sr. Sabrina Edwards of MWDC, Dr. Prabir Chatterjee (independent consultant), Tanaji Sen and Praveen Kumar of RedR India, Sujay Chowdhury of Goal India, Dr. Ujjwal Kr. Sengupta of IMA, Nazrul Islam of INSS, Shibesh Das of RCHSS, Saradindhu Banerjee of PRIA, Anshuman of Sabuj Sangha, Abinash, Jatin and Manabendranath of Save the Children, Mrs. Bani of SMS, Bidyut Debnath of SPADE, Fr. Valentine Rai of Anuggyalaya, Darjeeling, Raja, Bhaswati and Jayanta Das (all three of them worked as my collegues for a short term), and you, my friend, have made a positive difference in my life.

If ever you need my support in strengthening any of your systems or building the capacity of your staff or partners, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you once again from the bottom of my heart! Lots of Love and Best Wishes to all of you !

Puthumai A. Nazarene

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Frankenstein

It is already four days since the tragic “train murder” took place near Jhargram, a town 140 kilometers west of Kolkata. The Maoists (the anti-government, supposedly pro-poor) extremist groups damaged a railway line, that led to the derailment of a passenger train, While five of its bogies were lying on the tracks next to it, a goods train rammed into it, and the death toll has gone up to 146 so far! Nothing can justify shedding of innocent blood. “Threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

These same groups were promoted over the last two decades by various political parties, in order to threaten their political opponents. Today, the Maoists have grown into a monster! Yes, they cannot be called Maoists, just Monsters. They have killed over 1,000 security personnel in the last three years, and a few thousand civilians through bombings, murder and kidnaps. The home minister of the country has asked the defence ministry to support him with drones to track the movement of the Naxals in the secluded dark jungles of the region, and the defence ministry says, it cannot share its resources because it cannot be seen to be waging war against its own citizens!

My dear Defence Minister, we are talking of citizen’s right to life, and not the right of murderers to live.

Law and governments are meant to protect the people of the country, and not to let loose Frankensteins like this. Today, the jungles of at least five states are under the control of the Maoists, and the State (provincial) governments are finding it difficult to control their power. The anomaly of governance has led to blame games, and no one wants to take responsibility in the States. They are growing into a group like the LTTE that ruled parts of Sri Lanka until a year ago. Interestingly, most states haven’t even declared these groups as unlawful! I am afraid it will take an assassination of one of the top leaders of the country, for the governments to wake up and ban these institutions that work for hatred-building across the country.

We need the rule of law to be enforced strictly, immediately.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Stepping Ahead

May 31, 2010 will be officially my last day in office as the State Coordinator of State Inter Agency Group - West Bengal. Immediately after that, may be for few more days, I shall hang around in Kolkata to complete the reports, close some files and accounts, and hope to be freed by 5 June 2010. And then comes the next step. A Big STEP. I need to see where I will be going to. Will it suit me? And do I suit the place? My experiences in Kolkata in the past one year have made me tougher by any measure, to take on challenges, and come out victorious. I wish to be challenged by bigger tasks. People are really wondering why I do not want to continue as the State IAG Coordinator. Even if I ask for around 40,000 rupees as salary, they would be interested in giving. Then why? The answer is simple.
This place has taken me away from reality. From people. From the poor. I have learned of the bigger things in life. But I wish to ensure that the bigger things are merged with the simple lives of the people. Or else, the bigger things will remain just a theory.

For those who are wondering what I would be doing.... my first step will be in the line of starting an SMS based geographically conditioned Early Warning System in the State of West Bengal ! The mobiles have been plenty in the villages, and yet this has not been sufficiently used to send out alerts and early warnings. This is what I wish to do first. Then... ? May be setting up a business partnership with an European friend and an American friend (Mary Taylor.... you fit in here!) for export of materials produced by poor women of the villages so that these women can get some livelihood out of it, and the consumers in Europe and the U.S. can pay less! Hugely ambitious, yet doable. Let us do it!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Action in Inaction, Inaction in Action

How do you remain untouched by the stress of the world? Someone who has come from England was discussing with me the other day. She is stressed, bored and at times, not finding joy in life. It is all a lot of action, and activities. I was reminded of a sloka I read in Bhagawad Gita years ago. Chapter 4, verse 18 speaks of how a person who achieves inaction in action, and action in inaction is intelligent among all beings, and is transcendentally situated among all as perfect performer of all actions. My translation may not be the best. But it means the same. It is important to learn to find the inactive part of one self when in action, and to be in action, even when one is seen to be inactive. This sort of maintaining one's self balances the self, internally and externally. Balance of action is perfect always! As Plato would call it, take the middle path.

The Road Ahead

It is once again decision time. Yes, I must take decision. I was repeatedly asked to continue as the State Coordinator of State Inter Agency Group (IAG). This is the body that coordinates the activities of international, national and local non-profit organizations who work on emergency preparedness and response within the State. And I am the first State Coordinator appointed by the body. Though it existed since the year 2000, it was hardly known to people, until I sat on the saddle. Of course I was enormously supported by the UNICEF, who gave me great support in helping me achieve higher results by ensuring quality action from my side. Soon everyone wanted a pound of flesh in it. In an year's time, State IAG had been a common name among the non-profit organizations.

But for me? It took me away from people. I was talking to invisible organizations even when I was speaking to persons. That is the problem at heart. I cannot be separated from people. I must return. Return to be with people. To work for them. To ensure that everyone lives in peace, love, happiness and have the capacity to bounce back when calamities crumble their lives and livelihoods. It is time to act. Time to decide. Should I serve God and his people, or religion and structures? Lead kindly Light amidst the encircling gloom... Lead Thou me on...

Seventh Wonder or Seventeenth Wonder?

The last week had been unexpectedly busy. I had not expected a hectic week, as I had only hoped to complete the account of the State Inter Agency Group, (IAG) finish few other paper works, plan for an inter State exposure visit, and slowly begin to handover things. But, the meeting of the State IAG of which I am the State Coordinator since 26 May 2009, changed the whole thing. I was asked to organize a special commemorative program on 25 May 2010 as that date will be the first anniversary of Cyclone Aila that killed 139 persons, and left over 500,000 people homeless, besides affecting over six million people. In the meeting it was also decided that there will be no decision taken on my successor until the Executive Committee meeting on 24 May. Now, all this is putting me in trouble. It would mean, I will be burning mid-night oil throughout the month.

Meanwhile, someone suggested that the State IAG should start a campaign in the state supporting the claim for the Sunderbans to be declared as one of the Wonders of the World. I always had problem with numbers. Why only seven wonders? Why not seventeen? The second problem with this whole thing is taking place in the backdrop of continues strikes in Darjeeling hills affecting hundreds of thousands, including children. May be, the strikes in West Bengal should be a world wonder! Oh, the Maoists (extreme left wing party people) are killing every day some innocent people, if they do not get some cops to kill ! This must be the nastiest thing on earth! The roads in Kolkata are certainly some sort of a wonder! There are over 30 manholes in a distance of 600 meters from my office to the next road cross. And each of these manholes are covered with an iron plate, and they all pop above the the road, making driving on the road really bumpy and painful. Actually why do they need so many holes? I have never figured it out. This could be another wonder. I am sure, my friends from U.S. and Europe would agree the drivers of Kolkata are the biggest wonder. They swirl, turn, twist in a blink of an eye and take you through unimaginably long and hard traffic that it certainly takes a miracle each time you are in a car or bus to reach safe. Long live wonders of the world.... Vote for more options.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Under Down South

On 30 April, I rushed to Chennai by an evening flight, and took a mid-night bus to Pondicherry (Puducherry), and met my sister and brother-in-law who had arrived there for a family celebration. The events were all over by noon. But, I had not slept the whole night. And then we all left for Madurai, reaching the city in down South at 8.30 p.m. After a sumptuous meal, and lots of fun, I fell as sleep by 11.00 at night. Sunday was not a resting day, as I had to visit other family members, and the families of my nieces. It was also interesting to see the new shop of my nephews who are struggling to erect it with whatever means they have. After the evening mass, and grand dinner, I left for Chennai, and other places in Tamilnadu, and reached back in Kolkata on 5 May 2010. Lots of work await me....

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Real Stories, Sad Lives

As we traveled through the bumpy mud road that parted from National Highway 34, after crossing about 6 kilometers from Karandighi, (35 kms north of Raiganj town), we were greeted by a bullock cart that was carrying three others and some bags of wheat, two bags of cement and few rods. Once we crossed it, we entered Basudebpur, the little hamlet that is dotted by palm trees, and it was almost empty under the scorching noon. Accompanied by two other companions and the driver, our Scorpio was soon surrounded by couple of women, three men and a dozen children. As I got down, I was looking for some known faces. I had been to these areas almost eight years ago. Nothing much has changed.

The Santhal tribal people who live in the midst of the village surrounded by Muslims and Scheduled Caste communities on either side were still living with hope, living in present! When I walked into the first house I felt comfortable with, I found a boy of about 12 years old. There was some light in his eyes. I could read that he is educated. I enquired. He said he is studying in the fifth grade. And when I walked in, I found a old lady whom I could recognize, and fortunately she could recognize me as soon as I introduced! I requested her to take us around the village. Soon some more known and unknown faces joined us.

I saw at least six fully damaged houses and several partly damaged houses in the hamlet of about 30 odd houses. All of tribals. I saw the men sitting and drinking the liquor drawn from palm trees (toddy), and all that the men and women could utter at every house was, they received nothing after the tornado that tore their houses apart on the fateful night of 13 April.

We checked with them. They had gone several times to the Panchayat (local government office). But the crowd at the panchayat was overwhelming, and they were asked to come another day. Well, these people had no money to travel, nor the voice and strength to stand and receive the tarpaulins.

We walked further. At the farthest end of the village was the house of Denis Soren. (That’s how she pronounced it.) Her house was flat. She is a young widow. Has a child of about 5 months old, and another girl studying in upper kinder garden. Her husband died when she was just three months pregnant. The house on which it was built is a declared “waste land”. With no other assets, and the house flattened, with nothing to cook, she wanted to go to see her elder child whom she had not seen in weeks. Tears were rolling up her eyes, as there is no one to help her collect the broken tins, nor to repair her house. She is, luckily, the only person who had received a black polythene sheet (as tarpaulin) and three kilograms of rice. And she had eaten all that stuff in the last four days.

We were dumb. We had no words to console. We took her on our air-conditioned 850,000 rupees worth Scorpio, and dropped her at the boarding school where her child is. On the way, we gave her some money, which would probably buy her some oil and soap for her child, and purchase some pulses for her own survival for few more days. The support from humanity never seems enough to get her out of poverty. Alas, you could still see thirst in her eyes.

Congress and other things...

The State Disaster Risk Reduction Congress, first of its kind in the country, took place on 22 -24 April 2010. It had been very long 10 weeks of preparation, that yielded fruits. As State Coordinator of the State Inter Agency Group, I had to go about creating sub-committees, negotiate with organizations for fund raising for the event, and ensure that every thing perfect in order.... With over 60 speakers and three venues, over 600 participants and over 50 dignitaries, and the huge exhibition by 20 organizations and National Disaster Response Force, the entire Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata gave a new look. The sun was inclement. It certainly hit on my body, as the last seven days were almost sleepless, and spending the days in hot and humid weather. A little shop at the stadium run by two blind people (they are couples) gave me some relief, as I drank almost five to eight bottles of Nimbooz (of Coca Cola) that cooled me down, with the lemon flavor.
Meanwhile, the death toll in Uttar Dinajpur where a devastating storm had struck had gone up to 43, and the government said over 100,000 houses are fully damaged, and the number of people affected by the storm was placed at 700,000. On 15 April I had called for a meeting of the State IAG and we sent a team of professionals to do needs assessment. Several organizations have started responding to the needs of the affected population, although it is severely insufficient, and the support given by the government is terribly short of fulfilling people's needs, and is mired in political battle. (In picture, a child at play in the midst of rumbles....never realizing the damage that surrounds it!)

As soon as the Congress was over on 24 April evening, immediately I left for Raiganj to visit the affected areas and to assess the level of response. And my visits, rend my heart.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Another storm kills 39 in a district and keeps me busy!

I have begun to say to myself: "Anywhere in Bengal there is a disaster, it is a disaster to me!" Personally I have grown in the last 14 years of public life, and specially in the last 7 years, managing disasters from ground zero. The disasters have made me appreciate the health and safety I have, and also become humble and humane to empathize with the pain and agony of those who have lost their loved ones, homes, and livelihoods due to natural calamities.

At least 76 people were killed and more than 200 injured when a severe Nor'wester packed with a windspeed of 125 kmph raged for 40 minutes through North Dinajpur district of West Bengal, four neighbouring districts of Bihar and five of Assam last night.
While 39 people were killed in North Dinajpur alone, (where I worked for 12 years!) , 33 perished in four districts of Kishanganj, Araria, Supaul and Purnia in Bihar in the storm.

West Bengal chief secretary Mr Ashok Mohan Chakrabarti, reporters in Kolkata that the storm leveled 50,000-60,000 dwelling units. Later in the evening, reports suggested total destruction of 20,000 houses and partial destruction of 25,000 houses. Tin and thatched roofs were wrenched off and hurled at a distance in villages lining both sides of the National Highway in North Dinajpur.
Bamboo groves in more than 500 sq-ft. area at one village was completely uprooted as the storm ripped through Kaliaganj, Raiganj, Karandighi and Hemtabad blocks in North Dinajpur, civil defence minister Mr Sreekumar Mukherjee said. The storm, which was accompanied by rain, uprooted thousands of trees and left telephone and electric poles twisted, he said. Around 50,000 dwellings were destroyed rendering hundreds of people homeless in the district while the police barracks in Raiganj was destroyed, he said. Mr Chakraborti said the Centre had offered help to the state government.
“I contacted the cabinet secretary to brief him. The Centre has enquired about the devastation. The Centre is willing to assist the state government,” Mr Chakraborti said. He said Rs 5 lakh had been disbursed from the Calamity Relief Fund for the affected people. The government has approved the release of 25,000 tarpaulin sheets, 1,000 tonne of rice, dry food, tarpaulin sheets, dhotis, saris and children's garments for the affected villages. Drinking water was also being sent, while five medical teams left for the spot.

And I spent the whole day, collecting information, putting together a team for emergency needs assessment, and generating Situation Reports.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

It is WAR !

India is, for the first time, almost in a state of civil rebellion. Besides the massacre of policemen in some parts of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa in the recent past, on Tuesday, 6 April 2010, nearly 1,000 rebels (called Naxalites / Maoists) ambushed 75 men of para-military force (known as, Central Reserve Police Force - CRPF), and a police driver, and killed them all under heavy gun battle. This is War! People killing forces of the country. The men, many from poorer families who took jobs in the CRPF to get their families out of poverty have been killed by the Maoists who claim to champion the cause of poor.

The political twist does not end there. The home ministry of the country has asked for two drones from the defense ministry, to spy on the Maoists specially in the deep jungles, so that operations against them can be done safely. But the defense ministry does not want to give them. Reason: defense items cannot be used to fight against the citizens of the country! Rubbish.

If we cannot protect the citizens what is the point in having these resources? When citizens' lives are under threat, how can we not use our resources? Do the people who continue to engage in inhuman violence have a right to citizenship? Who defines citizenry?

And finally, when will we stop talking politics, and start acting?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stupidity at its bottom!

On 23 March 2010, exactly a week ago, the Stephen's Court, a heritage building which had two floors illegally built on its top, in Kolkata caught fire at noon. And as of today, as the debris is being cleared, still dead bodies are being unearthed! And today, 29 March 2010, it stands at 43. The State Government has announced a 11 member inquiry committee. Who are all in it? The Fire Department, the Public Works department (PWD), the Electricity department, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the Police Department...... and the list goes long. The list looks good. But it has an inherent problem. How did the fire department give clearance to an illegal building, with only wooden staircases, which caught fire quickly, and so, people could not climb down at all! How did the electricity department give electrical connections to Stephen's Court, and it continues to give connection to thousands and thousands across the state, who live on illegal land, including on the land of many municipalities and panchayats? How is that the PWD department give facilities for water, and other facilities, including accepting to live with the illegal construction? The Kolkata Municipal Corporation seem to have had over 9 million rupees in due from this building alone as unpaid taxes. Who was bribing them? What was the police doing in all this? Now, you get my point! The people who are charged with are the ones who are going to probe it! Making a laughing stock of the government and the people. This is stupidity at its rock bottom.

This is a government that never learns. The people haven't learned it either.