Saturday, December 28, 2013

Are we chasing disasters?

In a meeting with the Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ms. Margarita Wohlstrom held at the India Habitat Center in a meeting of UN and few select representatives for reviewing the suggestions that have risen from various consultations across the country on looking beyond the Hyogo Framework for Action, I mentioned that "If we do not move ahead of the disasters they would catch, and in fact they have already caught up, with us. If we do not catch up with disasters they would catch up with us. Are we chasing disasters? It is not about doing better against each disaster, but is about doing better to minimize risks against future disasters." 

Look at a dozen of major disasters that stuck us in the last year. We have lost over 20,000 lives, and have gone backward in billions of dollars on pure economic terms. All our responses have been getting better and more humane. Our reconstruction activities have been more and more getting standardized. But look at the linkage between development and disaster. There is still a vast gap. We just do not want to bridge it just how how hard it may look to be. None of the nations and states want to lose a pie by way of development matrix, but would not mind to lose a million in terms of hazards--both generated and responded.

One key indicator if we look at is waste generation and waste recycling. Waste has huge impact on the environment and can lead to several new hazards or increase exposure to such hazards. Look at the kind of E-Waste that we are generating. And then look at the municipal wastes. It is out rightly not in proportion. But by the fact that we are generating more e-waste, is a sign that "we are developing" (?). In fact the amount of e-waste generated would be 33% higher in 2017 in comparison to 2012. "The average Canadian, for example, generated about 24 kilograms of e-waste in 2012. That’s more than 860,000 tonnes for the entire country, roughly equivalent to the weight of about 1,700 fully loaded Boeing 747s at take off." (Source: The Star.Com )

How fast is our recycling units growing? The highest of waste recycled according to World Mapper is in Netherlands, and what is the percentage -- 45.2%, and then it keeps dropping drastically but for few rich and highly environment conscious countries. In other words, even Netherlands is left with more than half of its waste every year.  In this order, if we look at any of the other key indicator, air pollution, green house emissions, forestation, population management, and all these have a sad story to tell. 

Probably we are fighting a losing battle, unless we take up seriously issues that contribute to hazards and get ahead of disasters before they keep going ahead of us. Or else, we will literally be chasing the wind!

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Gem of All

The first of the officers I wish to talk about is Mr. Amit Singh Negi. It was on 23 Sep that I met him at his office. The interaction was hardly for a minute as I was participating in one of the initial meetings on housing policy and related strategy of the government. He had not spoken much at that time. And there was nothing called a "first impression" that he made on me. But it was after that we started interacting on few issues relating to reconstruction of schools and ICDS centers which were technically not within his realm much. On 14 Oct for the first time he called me and wanted to help plan an NGO-Corporate meeting on Housing Reconstruction. That brought me closer to him. So, what I observed were a lot purely from professional point of view than a very personal observation.

He arrived every morning between 10.00 am and 10.30 am and remained till well beyond 8.00 pm at night. He had his own ways of sharing responsibility. Officers and staff, I found, had problem in talking to him of any differences of opinion or sharing their own views. He was extremely controlled with his emotions even when things were not going okay. Under extreme pressure, he still kept cool. He knew whom to approach to support him for what purpose. He picked up any phone, and if he were in a meeting, he would call back later. He had extreme sense of respect for human beings. Oh, yes, this is one Principal Secretary into whose room most people can just walk in! That is amazing! There was very little of the problem of access to him, unless he was in a very important meeting which happened rarely. Inside his own office he had set up two small work stations where officers can sit, discuss, plan, do informal/formal meetings, take decisions, all in a very transparent manner. 

I just fell in admiration for this person. He is just a rare gem in the cloud of many many Indian Administrative Service Officers who just stand out tall and unique.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Where Government Meets People: Governance

I have recently begun to observe one important factor that really makes people feel that the government is closer to the people: an officer picking up a phone. In the last 14 years that I am carrying a cellphone, and have been connected with countless officers of various rank and file as I work in the arena of disaster management, I have seen how people can feel recognized and accepted. In one of the recent meetings a senior staff (both in age and experience) of an NGO commented in the presence of some very senior officers: "Whomsoever I phone, the only person I am sure will pick my phone, or shall call back is the UNDMT (United Nations Disaster Management Team) Coordinator sitting in the district or the state." It stuck me hard. 

Why do people get disillusioned with governments? Why do they think that the government doesn't heed to them? I myself have experienced this. I keep calling some officers three to four times a day, at different times of the day. But he / she just doesn't pick the phone. They do not have the courtesy to call back, if they were busy at the time of my calling. When I checked with other officers as to why such things happen, they mentioned that the particular officer may not have my number in his / her cellphone! That is surprising. How am I supposed to get my number into his/her phone? Send an SMS? You don't get replies!

As the day wears out you feel upset. Now if this is what happens to someone who understands the system, imagine what about ordinary people. It is not that all officers are of the same class. I have seen  at least three officers here who usually pick the phone or send a text message that they would call back, if they are busy. May be they forget to call me back later in the thick of activities, but I am glad that they acknowledged the call ! 

One important way for governments to show that they are accessible to people is to pick up the phone. It might cost time. But if you don't, it would cost the government! If a bureaucrat does not pick the phone, an elected representative of the government will lose votes in the election, and be shunted out! How on earth are people to believe that the government is closer to them? By governance. By making them feel that their needs are heard. By giving them the satisfaction that their calls will not be turned away. It is not all about solving problems. It is about making people heard, and recognized -- recognized as persons whose voice, time and self has a worth. 

About the three people who make me feel that they are with the people - I shall write in my next post.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

An Untold Story: Silence of the Lambs

Couple of days back a friend working with an international non-profit organization that focuses on children's issues, sent me a mail about a missing family in the tragedy of 16 - 17 June that took away the lives of more than 5,000 people. This family was still searching for their only son who had disappeared along with his wife and an young son of about 12 years old since 17 June. I replied that the mail was incomplete if it has to be shared with any of the districts or state officials on missing persons. Later I got a call from this family. ( For the sake of this post, I shall call it Jenny's family.) When Jenny called me I was heading for a meeting, and so I scheduled to speak to her later on 19th afternoon. This post is all about that conversation that left me numb.

Jenny is married and well settled with her family along with her father. It is the story of her missing brother and his family that they are searching for as her father is inconsolable. I took details about the missing persons. Then I heard her speaking about children....women. I said "But wasn't only your brother and his wife and their single son involved?" She said, "Yes, but my uncle's family too traveled along with them." "So, how many were they?" She said, my uncle died sometime ago. My aunt along with her five daughters, their husbands and 7 children (total 18) of them and my brother, his wife and the son (that makes it 21) traveled from Delhi to Haridwar, and from there they traveled by a vehicle to upper hills. They had visited Badrinath around 15th and then on 16th they were in Kedarnath after trekking the mountains from Gourikund. They had called us after the darshan (worship). As it was raining, they decided to stay back in Kedarnath thinking that it would be difficult to trek back the 14 kilometers on the mountains with all the children in the rain. They thought it is better to stay in a place where there are lot of people in stead of getting stuck at a smaller place on the way. Since 17 June, we have not heard from any of them."

With my throat already dry, I asked her calmly, "I am very sorry to hear about this. You mean 21 persons in a single family have been just missing for the last four months?" She replied, "Yes Sir. Each day is a silent hell in our life. The rest of the family, all of us, find it even difficult to speak with one another. It is too much of SILENCE at home. None of us have much to speak to each there. With what words can any one comfort the other?"

I sympathized with her and told her that from my present position I can only share her story with the government and tell them to see if the matter can be expedited as early as possible. I checked with her if they had filed the missing person report with the police, and if inquiry has been completed, for which she replied positively. I checked if they gave DNA samples. She replied that it was not done as the Doon hospital that was handling was over crowded, it was an eternal wait for a whole day.

A whole family had been silenced. Silenced along with the thousands, leaving many more to remain in silence as they keep waiting for their beloved ones, who may never return. The trauma of the remaining members of similarly affected families would take decades to heal. Until then, pray that these families find solace in the company of good friends.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Privileges of the Under Privileged

I get to meet some of the very poor people in this bustling little city of Dehradun. As my auto-rickshaw stops at the signal in Prince Chowk, we get some of the very poor filthy clad women and children lining up to collect the change one may get from the auto-rickshaw driver. Again similar thing happens at Khenak Chowk, hardly 50 meters from the four star Pacific Hotel. I see these people living on pavements with half-naked children, getting wet in the rain, with one of them having severe wound. There is another lady who lives almost opposite of the Tirupati restaurant on the Rajpur road where the pavement from the famous St.Joseph's Academy ends and takes a curve to the left. I saw her fighting with the dogs today, as the dogs were fighting for her food. I just shooed away one of the dogs and came away.

On return to my room in the guest house, I began to wonder - we are talking about rights based approach, human dignity, vulnerability of people who have been affected by the disaster, and those in risk, people who find it difficult to yearn their daily bread because there are no religious pilgrimages. But what is the status of these people? Do they really count in a society where even half a plate of rice without any curry or vegetables (just plain) comes at 15 rupees ! Often it shatters one's heart, but some times, over a long period of looking at these social evils, the heart becomes harder, and we take it in its own stride. Someone had said, "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it an appearance of being right!". 

This is what has happened to society....it happens to economy....it happens to humans. Alas, how can the under-privileged speak of privileges. They can just keep mum till they drop dead. Privileges? Those are for the super rich who visit the affected population for two hours and get reported with photographs in English, Hindi and other vernacular newspapers for three days! Long live the privileged class of India!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ready Made or Tailor Made?

The question on whether people affected by the disaster in Uttarakhand should have pre-fabricated houses or a house built on their own according to their needs and likes is the hot point of discussion in the last few days across various categories of people. Should we wear ready made dresses or tailor made clothes? What are the advantages and disadvantages of both, let us see.

Ready made Dresses : They are ready to wear. In emergencies one gets to wear it immediately. Often there are many choices, but sometimes you many not get choice of your own. The clothes, because they follow universal sizes may not exactly fit to your curves....or sometimes, over expose them! They are usually cheaper than tailor made clothes, and so affordable for many. Often people complain of poor quality stitching in ready-made clothes.

Tailor made Dresses : These are the most liked ones as they supposedly tailored to perfection. You might buy cloth, but you cannot wear it immediately. You will have to wait further. Usually these are costlier, and not always affordable. But if you have a bad tailor they spoil the cloth and you are left with a bad dress.

I think the answers are clear. One must know what one wants at a particular point of time and within one's capacity. One cannot ask for having tailor made houses at the speed of buying a ready made cloth. The buyer must be given a choice -- how and what type one wants within the money that one has. Otherwise, the buyer will keep grumbling. Always the other side is greener than this side.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fighting the Gods

The disaster that has taken place in the state of Uttarakhand makes me continually wonder, "Are we fighting the Gods?" This state is also known as "Devbhumi", which means, Land of Gods. The tourist spots were closer to the plains - Nainithal, Musoorie and Dehradun, to name a few. The dwelling of Gods were mostly in the snow-clad mountains. People traveled on spiritual journey, not expecting to return back home! Yes, I am correct. People did not expect to return back home, when they were on spiritual journey. The other day one of my companions, Ms. Divya Gupta said that still people in some clans conduct a kind of funeral service for those planning to leave on pilgrimage to some of these places like Kedarnath, Badrinath and Gangotri. That is because, they thought that these were on their journey to moksha (roughly translated as "liberation" or "heaven") and if they return, good; if they do not, they have reached moksha. 
Picture courtesy: La Journal International

But, what have we done with the land? We have tried to behave exactly as do in the plains. We want high ways so that cars can ply at over 50 miles on hours on the steep mountains, we wish to have uninterrupted power supply and water supply at our door steps. What about uninterrupted tele-connectivity? We get upset if our mobile phones don't work --- and we blame the tele-service provider for poor connectivity. Young people move in hundreds and thousands only to provide service to the hundreds of thousands who flock to these and other temples, throwing away all along plastics from the fast food, cool drinks, water bottles, and packets from several brands of chips. The vehicles carry pilgrims and those on pleasure trips, leaving enough of CO2 that in their whole life time cannot undo. It is simply a tourism, centered around religious faith of people. Over exploitation of Gods for commercial reasons have probably been one of the biggest errors of all times. But religion and commerce are strange bed fellows - they openly speak against one another, but cannot live without the other.

The concept of development cannot be the same for all geographical locations, at all time. There is a need to leave many of these hills to remain just the dwelling places of gods and divine men. Remember that the Gods have remained intact in spite of the disaster, although the disaster killed thousands and destroyed much of livelihoods and buildings. Carrying worldly life of the plains to the spiritual life of the mountains is a dangerous proposition. God's will hit us back!

After all, all of us climbing up the mountain to seek God is not required, and not the right thing! One must truly be holy to climb up the mountains to see the face of God. I thought of ending it up with the first few verses of Psalm 24 from the Bible which is aptly titled, "The Earth is the Lord's":
The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness,
The world and those who dwell therein.
For He has founded it upon the seas,
And established it upon the waters.
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
Or who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, (my comment: money, power: new age idols)
Nor sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive blessing from the Lord,
And righteousness from the God of his salvation.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Change Agenda : Health

One of the sectors that I believe that needs to rework some of its strategies for implementation is the health sector. Most of the national policies for health, specially under the NRHM, though have some specific clauses for mountainous and tribal regions, there are certainly two issues that are not adequately covered in terms of policy or practice. 

The first issue is site selection for health facilities. Most health facilities (health sub-centers and Primary Health Centers) stand on lands donated by a local community member. We all know that except in few cases, often there is a need for cajoling someone into offering a plot of required land at no cost or at exceptionally low price because that is what the community is willing to pay collectively for it. So, what do you get for free or minimum cost? The minimum! Often the place is in a very vulnerable location either near a river, or on a slope or in flood prone location, as it happens in deltaic plains. Placing critical life line structures in vulnerable locations is not a right approach. This needs correction. The governments may have have to buy the land or at least a proper land area vulnerability assessment must be done before a plot of land is purchased.

The second issue is the case of vaccine packaging. Those in health sector know that most vials with vaccines for children come in doses of 10. Even in the plains where the population is much higher, it is difficult at times for the health Staff to open a vial because there aren't enough children to whom she can administer the vaccine. In the hills of Uttarakhand and in similar terrains in the country, where the population is still thinner and spread in far off places, this is much more difficult. So, either citing the policy the vaccine is not administered as the health staff cannot open the vial, or, the vaccination gets delayed, and the chances of a child not getting vaccinated increases. There is a serious need for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to review the policy on medicine procurement - specifically relating to packaging of vaccine vials. The manufacturers must be clearly instructed to prepare vials of 3 dozes for the hills and 5 dozes for the plains. If there are problems in production of multiple types of bottling, the vaccines can be packed in dozes of 5 per vial across the country. This would reduce wastage, improve vaccination and ensure greater results. Once the size of the vials is changed, the rules can be altered to ensure that even if there is one child, the vial can be opened so that no child is missed!


Prices with pharma companies must be renegotiated as these may try to sell hard the larger vials because they get paid based on the number of doses a vial holds.
Kedarnath : Satellite images showing pre-disaster  & post-disaster situation; In the post-disaster image (right) you can also notice the birth of a new stream!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Susceptibility and Consequential Vulnerability

As I continue to work on the Social Sector Plan for the most affected villages in five districts  of Uttarakhand, along with lots of inputs and preparatory works from my colleagues in the districts and in the State, I began to wonder about one thing. What are we really focusing on? Or rather, what are all the humanitarian agencies focusing on in their emergency response in Uttarakhand. As I kept pondering through these questions, in one of the daily mails that I share with my colleague (and mentor ) Sarbjit Singh Sahota of UNICEF, wrote " Response to Event Vulnerability will happen, but what about our response to Consequential Vulnerability?"

The people who were most vulnerable and highly exposed at the time of hazard striking them are dead and gone. Families have have lost their loved ones, bread winner, cattle, shops, valuables, almost everything ! The humanitarian agencies continue to respond with food baskets, clothes, temporary shelter, medical camps etc. There is an attempt to strengthen the emergency response system, the critical infrastructure and life line services which have been highly impacted in these districts. So, we are taking care of the "event vulnerability", i.e. people and resources who were vulnerable and have been affected by disaster are taken care of temporarily.

But what about Consequential Vulnerability -- vulnerability that is born of a disaster? People who were better off or in lower middle class, now have become poor. People who had land have now become landless and homeless as their houses and land were carried away. People who had a bread winner at home have become widows, father or motherless, orphans. People who could cultivate some grains have become paupers. Those who earned from shops and cattle have now come to seek asylum. 

The way we treat consequential vulnerabilities today will have an impact on event vulnerabilities and susceptibility of these people to disasters tomorrow.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Time the Compensation

One of the questions I have begun to ask in this assignment in Uttarakhand state is: Is the timing of giving compensation to families who have lost their houses "the right time"? Let us examine the facts. 

Usually after a disaster, immediately there is a hue and cry for compensating the loss. The governments, in order to get a political mileage and to silence the voices, immediately announce a compensation package, and at times it is even revised to increase the earlier package. In the case of Uttarakhand, each family that had lost its house got 200,000 rupees. Indeed, although the disaster had taken place on 16 - 17 June, during my visit to Pithoragarh district closer to the Nepal-Tibetan border with India as early as in the first week of July, I found that the families had been compensated. I was pleasantly surprised at that time the compensation has reached the community and people are happy that they received the money without any delay.

But this is the rainy season. People do not have much work. Most of the affected families are living on the generosity of the government which comes through free or subsidized food and some benefits given by the non-profit organizations. Today, that is about two months from the disaster, how much of that 200,000 is left with the families to reconstruct their houses? In any case with the rains continuing, the house reconstruction cannot start before October. So, how much will be left on the first day when the deprived family needs money? People eat, purchase clothes, pay for medicines, they travel and buy some utensils etc. with the same money.

This takes me to the first question: Is the timing of giving compensation to families who have lost their houses "the right time"? Or, should the "housing compensation be better timed?". One option I would propose is the following (an idea I shared with a few and later I wrote to Eilia J. in Care India yesterday, to share my opinion. 

Hon'ble Chief Minister of Uttarakhand gives compensation 
I would propose that the government gives the money in 3 or 4 installments; and all installments should be paid as advances (unlike in Indira Awaj Yojana where money is retroactively paid). This might have some force on the families too to take responsibility for the money and the house, while at the same time help in standardizing, completing the housing, and improve the the Cash Transfer mechanism as well.

If given in one time advance, it looks like the government has given the compensation, and it has technically washed its hands off! A longer term engagement by splitting the money will also give space for more dialogue on land rights, land usage issues, environmental concerns, risk prevention and management etc. 

May be it is time to rethink some of our compensation policies.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Working with Body and Mind

On 21 July, on arrival I checked in into a hotel on Rajpur road with a bit of bargain, after they agreed to give breakfast and dinner as complimentary for Rs. 1,500 per day. My room was in a corner, with very little light coming into the room. The pressure of work was catching up on me. On 22 July, Monday we had the initial orientation with Sarbjit ji leading it. On 24th we were busy in the morning at a Coordination Meeting called by  Sphere India and State Inter Agency Group at Hotel Aketa. Mr. G.Padmanabhan joined us in the afternoon, as we were told that GP (as we fondly call him) would be staying with us as an expert guide on the part of UN. So, that is going to be my biggest asset as I can count on his wisdom and experience.

We were given 10 days time to complete the first part of our task: clusterization of affected villages and prepare a Social Sector Plan for five districts. By the second day I could feel the heat of work, as I found that there is vast difference in the quality of people I had at hand. It was getting tough each day: there were several meetings lined up each day at the state level with various departments, break the grey cells to plan how this Social Sector Plan would look like, and coordinate the six district coordinators who had come with various experience, culture, educational level etc. And, as myself was unsettled, I was really wondering if I fit into the shoes.

In the second week, on Saturday and Sunday (27th & 28th) I took some time off and went around searching for a cheaper and better place to stay. It was certainly a frantic search, as I saw whatever little money I had was getting eroded day after day. At last I found a place "Butola's"--a new guest house just two months old. The rooms were clean and tidy, the room was bright, and even I had a bit of sunlight into my room at different times of the day. Though the place was about 5 km from the Secretariat (the headquarters of the Uttarakhand State Administration) from where I am working currently, it was well connected by road. And it was just about 2 km from my colleagues P.D.Mathur's home. So, at last I shifted there at Rs. 3,500 per month, and with additional 2,500 for breakfast and dinner. Since I found that the food is not worth it, after two weeks, I opted out of the dinner package and kept the breakfast only.

Once I got settled, I was now able to focus better on work. By 30th July I cracked the idea of how to make the Social Sector Plan, and started working on it. But, because the data was not coming from the districts, it kept dragging eternally, and by 15 Aug, we could complete just 3 of such plans. Two more are still pending.

But in the meanwhile, I have been able to get into lot of networking with several departments of the government: Women & Child Development Department, Education, Health and Disaster Management - to be specific. I also found some not so frequented sections to come around and help me. I took assistance of the GIS section in the Disaster Mitigation and Management Center and the NIC cell within the Secretariat to help me with several information or to validate certain information. 

I also grew in good friendship with GP, Sarbjit ji, Shachi, Rahul, P.D. Mathur, Shailesh, Divya and Aashima. Aashima left the team due to personal reasons after a three week stint here. I also got some new friends in the government: Mr. Sudhakar, Mr. Badauni and Ms. Suman. Things are shaping up for better. I have a hope of completing the assignment on a high, though I have to work long hours that take a toil on my body and at times on mind.

Note: Indeed in the second week, I was so stressed that I took a stress test and other tests relating to heart just to check if I am fine. Or, else I should quit this place. But, luckily, my system was able to take it and move on.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Journeys

On 7th we traveled from Munsiyari to Pithoragarh. On way we were informed that due to bad weather helicopters won't be flying, and so we will have to come by road. Noting that the roads are in extremely bad conditions and we were really up in the mountains, we knew that we would be having some real long travel. Bharati, one of our colleagues wasn't feeling well. We gave an avomin so that she would not vomit on the way, and we reached Pithoragarh at about 1.00 pm. We had lunch and we traveled again, crossed Almorah, and traveled further West, and at last stayed in a little town on the way as it was already 9.30 pm, and it wouldn't be safe for us after that. Our driver, Mr. Neeraj had been driving since morning 7.00 am from Munsiyari. On 8th morning at 7.00 am, as it continued to rain we left for Dehradun and reached at 4.30 pm. This was really a very long drive. 

On 9th & 10th, we continued with preparations of our reports, and on 11th I traveled back to Delhi, and then to Kolkata. My friend Tanaji was kind enough to allow me to use a car to reach home at night itself. I had three students from Seattle with whom I had planned to have dinner. So, on arrival in Kolkata I traveled to Tung Fung and had a good dinner. Then proceeded by car to Bolpur.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On the Risky Terrain - Women, Vulnerability and Disaster

06 July 2013: It has been raining since 5th noon, and it was just getting worse. I along with Rahul and Bharti went to meet few officers in the Block Administrative Office, took some data, and then proceeded towards Madkot, from where we should be going to a village called Devibagar, which was on the other side of the river. The roads were getting more damaged due to the rains, and in several places it was slippery. I was saying a prayer in my heart, as at several points I could feel that the wheels were just dragging on the wet slippery surface. When we were about four kilometers from Madkot, we saw that the road has been blocked as new debris had come down the mountain and few men were working at it. Seeing that on both sides vehicles had stopped and that the road looked very unsafe.... (we could see deep cracks appearing on the road which would after all fall into the ravine that had water cutting from below the road at over 70 feet down! It was frightening even to look at the water.

Seeing the situation we asked Bharti to return to Munsiyari, and we two men along with the IDBP soldier, began to walk towards Madkot. I kept looking in front of me and on road making sure that I am neither too close to the edge of the road nor closer to the mountain, and avoid water that had turned muddy by then. Suddenly, the soldier shouted at me, "Sir, Stop! STOP !" I stopped and turned back to him and asked, "What happened?" He said "You see the debris is coming down the hill from up? You need to look up as well!" We waited for the debris to fall, and then we jumped past that and we walked towards Madkot, wondering - "What a risky life is this! In flood prone areas, I should be careful of whirlwinds. But here what I have is - I need to look ahead of me, below me and above me, even to take a step forward!" Another prayer in heart : "God, please take me back home safely!"

After we crossed through Madkot, another three kilometers of walk to Devibagar. We stopped a gentleman in his late thirties or early forties who was walking with a young girl (approx 17 - 19 years), and asked him about how the disaster has impacted his life. He said that his house is safe, but food prices and transportation are the concern, and he did not want to talk to us because, pointing to the girl he said, he was taking his wife to the doctor! Alert, certainly in this place child marriage is rampant.

When we reached Devibagar and got into the Tourist guest house closer to the hot spring there, the eight families living there came forward, and we had very good discussion. The families took us around the affected area, spoke about how their houses were washed away by the river and how much of compensation they got etc. The children mentioned that they were studying in the Madkot school which has been washed away, and they are not sure where they would go to for schooling.  The families sounded desperate as they did not have any work and were living on the ration (relief food items and the money they got. The men and women kept mentioning that they are not getting work, even the road work. Their desperateness was on their eyes, looks and body language. I also noticed that this was the only village where I saw at least 6 young girls in their teens, which was not the case in the villages where we have visited so far, where I hardly saw a young girl. So, the question began to come to my mind:

Are these girls vulnerable to be trafficked? Why aren't many girls in other villages, including Madkot which is more thickly populated? Have the girls of those villages been already married off or trafficked? So, in that case, is Devibagar better than others - in protecting their girls?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Walk Down the Death Hill

05 July 2013: As we left our hotel a little later than usual : at 8.30 am, and we went to the local administrative office. One or two officials were beginning to come at about 9.00 am. We took some information from them about a relief camp in Dhapa and in Jimighat which functions as a transit relief camp. We decided to go to these places as they were next to each other: Dhapa camp along the road side, after which there is no road connection (as it has been cut off) and Jimighat down below the hill. We crossed Dhapa after about 50 minutes of drive on a bad damaged road, and went further for about a kilometer, beyond which we could not proceed. We decided to walk. Initially, the road wasn’t bad. As we began to walk down, we met two village travelers walking up. I stopped them and ask where they were heading to, where are they coming from and how long is the distance. One of them stopped to answer: We have been walking well beyond Martoli (closer to Indo-China border) for the last five days, and we shall reach Munsiyari today. There is no food in the hills, and so we have been walking, going past one transit camp after another so that we can get some work, live in a relative’s home, and have some food. They said that their families are in the ITBP camps and may be shifted by the army once the weather gets better. I told these men to wait for us at Dhapa camp so that we can give them a lift to Munsiyari when we return.

We then walked down towards Jimighat. It was a steep, almost 80 deg slope down hill. We were holding on to few roots and rocks in several places as the path was wet and slippery. It was like learning to walk like a little kid in all fours! The walk down the hill alone took full 40 minutes. It was a very tall mountain indeed! When we reached there we saw a kind of a little tent which the men there (who were going around smoking and looked drunk) said, “This is the relief camp!” When we introduced ourselves they brought a banner and hanged on it, and they were happy to get photographed. I walked and saw that it is just a single room structure with lots of holes, filthy, and dark. They were cooking food for lunch. I realized soon that these men were smoking hash, and were blowing it upon your nose! We also found a large notice on one side of it : “Hotel School mein hai” (which means, “The hotel has been shifted to the school !” So, where is the school? The school does not function for want of students. Due to repeated disasters and social issues most children are staying in Munsiyari town for studies. (This is an information that we could empirically verify, although people said that it is true that many families in upper hills keep their children in smaller towns.) There was a little bridge that connects the Milam sector with the main area next to this camp. People coming from the Milam sector can sit here, eat, relax and then walk ahead.  The bridge was in a very dilapidated condition and can break any moment. We visited few families in the neighborhood, spoke to them. I hardly saw women, and just a few children, in comparison to the number of men. I kept wondering where have they all gone? This place is a clear threat to children and women. (I heard on next day in Munsiyari that in the Jimighat camp, on 5th evening, after we had left, a woman was molested.)


The walk up was still more tiresome. We had to stop several times as our heartbeat went up and perspiring too much. On our way up, picked those two travelers at Dhapa camp, and traveled back to Munsiyari. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Madness at Madkot

04 July: Both the teams left at 6.15 am after a cup of black tea that the hotel thoughtfully provided,  and we separated after picking up an ITBP soldier each from the camp. I had Mr. Neeraj as our driver and Mr. Suresh, an ITBP soldier as our companion, along with Rahul and Bharati, my team mates. As the car climbed through the hills, Bharati took ill, and we stopped quite a few times, and at Thal for breakfast. When we reached Munsiyari at 12.30, our stay had been booked at KMVN guest house, a government run building. The lady at the front desk told us that the cost of the rooms would be 1250 per night. I was surprised that it is pretty costly with the rooms not so well maintained, with no AC etc. However, we thought of continuing to stay there. We visited the Munsiyari block office and had a brief by the Addl. District Magistrate Dr. Raghav Langer who was stationed there to coordinate the relief operations. He gave us a lot of information verbally asked one of the block officers to give further information to us in printed formats. As it was taking time, we thought of collecting the information on the next day, have lunch now (it was 3.00 pm), so that we can visit a village on the same day.

We asked Bharati to stay put at the hotel since she wasn’t feeling well, and we three men (me, Rahul and Suresh) proceeded to Madkot. Our journey to Madkot took over an hour, although the distance was hardly 16 kms. The road had been damaged at several locations, but it had been “mended”. When we crossed the river Gori just ahead of Madkot, we saw the crumbling village. Its school and several buildings had been damaged or gone in the water about 90 – 100 feet down the valley. We had discussions with families, shopkeepers, the village leader and finally we visited also the relief camp where 12 families whose houses had been fully damaged were living.

Madkot village is an entry point to several other villages, and so it had lots of shops and the houses were well built. My first impression was that the people of the village cannot be too poor here. Purely looking at the houses, there were about 30% of families who can be classified as poor, as other families lived on shops or jobs, and they seemed to be better off. We were even surprised that there were two hotels in the village! One of them was just on the river bed, and might be threatened soon if the river doesn’t change its course, and the other was a lot more interior and in a secure location.

The relief camp had been set up on an abandoned building by a failed / attempted hydro power station in a nearby location. When we visited the camp, we saw the place to be clean. After a brief with the staff at the camp, we went to visit the families in the camp.  (I am not discussing programmatic issues in this blog, because this is a personal one. And so such have been presented in official reports. Only human stories and personal experience are mentioned here.)

We saw a man on wheel chair, two other men, few children and a old lady, and we started talking to them. Other family members had gone into the village as they go about their normal work and they return whenever they think off to come to stay at the camp. They had come with all their properties as they saw the river beginning to eat up under their houses. We saw dish antennas, parked cars, heaters and even power generators! As I said earlier, many of these families were not poor. But nature had punished them, and have been left homeless and landless now. The three buildings in the camp had two floors each, and in each floor two families were staying! So, well set!


Where politics steps in: We were told that the local Member of the Legislative Assembly has told these families not to quit the camp as this place is better secured, unless and until the government gives them a better house! Arrogance of leadership.

Monday, July 22, 2013

First Impressions of the Disaster

03 July 2013 : I knew even before I left Dehradun for Pithoragarh that this district is not the worst affected. However, I also knew that I had not been sent here on a paid tour. The UN and government must have had a specific reason to put me on this visit to Pithoragarh. At the airport which had just a small little concrete roof of about 10ft x 10 ft passage way that had been converted into the control room with the district Collector Mr. Neeraj Kherwal IAS sitting and the 2nd Commandant of ITBP (Mr. Martolia, because he is from a village called Martoli) in Pithoragarh guiding the ITBP jawans and camps across the hills, and both of them giving briefs to the IAF helicopter captains….and several satellite phones and wireless systems set up to ensure flow of communication, and couple of tents and over 20 civilian and para-military vehicles lying on the side…. It all gave you an impression of you have landed in the midst of an English action thriller.
The district collector explaining about the disaster using map.

The Collector (also known as the District Magistrate) was very welcoming, honest about the disaster, explained the current situation through a map of the hills drawn by the ITBP that had been placed on a small display board. We could question him about the government’s response. Then we went to meet the District Disaster Management Officer Mr. B.S. Rana at his office, and thereafter to the ITBP camp for further discussion on the logistics. Mr. Martolia  took us into a large hall that is used for educating the young soldiers. The hall had a three dimensional replica of the region mentioning where the Indian villages are, borders are, various security camps are and where various passes and passage routes are. This was extremely important for us to understand which route we must be taking, and which we must avoid. This discussion was educative as well, as we decided to make a strategic change: Our team will be divided into two: two men will go to Dharchula and three of us will go Musiyari, and these two towns will be used as our bases to visit other damaged villages. As a guide and security, Mr. Martolia also offered to provide us with a soldier each so that each team is safe and comfortable in the unknown region.  (The maps we saw are security sensitive and so we were asked to delete them from cameras.)


We were tired as it was already 8.15 pm, and I had to update several persons about the present plans, logistics etc, We checked in at Punetha Inn after a little bargain on the rates. The manager of the hotel was accommodating, and we went to bed by 11.00 pm after a vegetarian meal.

Alert: Corruption in Airport

On 21 July, Sunday, I traveled from Kolkata to Delhi by Air India AI 763. I was to fly by the 11.10 am Jet Airlines flight to Dehradun from IGI Airport Terminal 3. As I went to check-in they saw that my suitcase weighed 19 kg, i.e. 4 kg more than permitted. The gentleman at the counter told me, you may shift 4 kg to your handbag as he gave me the Boarding Pass saying that he would issue me the luggage tag when I resubmit it. I rearranged a few things and I knew that I have not done much as there was not much space in the handbag too. A loader (the person who loads luggages) came to me and said he would get it weighed. When he saw that it was weighing 17 kg, he said, "Sir, you will have to pay Rs. 500 for the excess baggage. But I can get it done, you just give me some money!" I got a shock! Waaw....when did this kind of corruption get in? I planned to take the risk. I said, "Okay". He took the Boarding Pass from me.

He went to one of the counters, spoke to the guy on the check-in counter, and then got the luggage tag on my Boarding Pass, and got my luggage moving. As he was busy at the counter, I pulled out my Samsung SII Galaxy, switched on the audio recorder to capture whatever discussion may take place between me and him. He returned to give me the Boarding Pass and said, "See, it would have cost you 500. You give me 400 !" He stretched out his hand in front of so many passengers. I walked ahead, and he followed me. As soon as we were away from the lines, I pulled out two hundred rupee notes and two 50 rupee notes from my wallet and told him that I have only this much - Rs. 300. I also noted quickly in my mind the last four digits of one of the 100 rupee notes. He moved away quickly.

I too took a stroll around so that he does not begin to watch me, and then I asked one of the Jet Air attendants walking by for the Supervisor. He showed me towards the check-in counters. I knew that that is not the correct position for me. I walked up to another information desk and I told the gentleman there that I had to bribe someone and I want to make a complaint. He directed me to the GMR Information Desk at the Departure Hall. I narrated the event to the gentleman there. He was very quick. He asked me if I can show the location or the person. I said I can clearly identify him, and even the money! He picked up his wireless and started talking into it, "Delta ...calling....### Delta.... Over" in some kind of code language. In couple of seconds another gentleman with stern eyes came to the counter and the GMR person asked me to narrate the event and walk with them. By then another young lady in jeans joined us. I asked them, "Who are you?" They said, "We are from the Vigilance Department". I narrated the event once again, and I led them to the counter. I identified the loader who had by then moved away from there to another counter area. 

The vigilance officer called him and immediately in a fraction of second plucked his Identity Card. The loader's name is Jai Singh Meena. Hei, now he cannot escape and run out of the airport! He was checked, and they pulled out the money from his pockets, and the money was identified and matched. Then we were taken to another counter. I was asked to give a written complaint. Meanwhile we were joined by two more officers one from the Jet Airways and another person, a senior officer, who said that he is the "Inspector". I was handed over the money and then I practically ran for the flight as it was time to catch up! 

Beware of Corruption in Airports and anywhere. Fight it intelligently. Take time to fight it. Do not shy away. We do have good officers who can respond to situations responsibly.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Flying Through the Sleepy Mountains

On 2 July we had a meeting at SIDCUL, within the IT park, Dehradun with Additional Secretary, Disaster Management Department and other UN officials. We were briefed about the districts, given contact numbers in those districts, and divided into smaller teams to assess the situation in five different districts. In our team we were five members: Rahul Pandit, Dr. Abhijit B, Ms. Bharati S, and Mr. Subrat Dash, and me. I am to function as the team leader and we were scheduled to visit Pithoragarh district. I was informed by my friends that Pithoragarh is a very far off district, and might take about 15 – 17 hours of journey on road. Late night we were told that we would be taken by a helicopter, and I was given a number to contact at the airport.
An aerial view from the helicopter

On 3 July, at 9.00 am we left for Jolly Grant Airport. I was enquiring from the driver why this airport is named after a person called “Jolly Grant”, but he was not able to explain it. When we reached there, we were received by a messenger who took us through the security system in the airport. It was tough to get in because we had lot of materials that cannot normally be taken on a plane. The security personnel were strict. Once we proved our genuineness we were sent by a car to the helipad within the airport area. I met a gentleman called Mr. Sathya who is the Civil Aviation Manager at the airport. He is from Andhrapradesh, a southern state of India. I spent lot of time in his chamber to understand the hardships these gentlemen faced during the rescue operations after the flashfloods since 16 June and how they coped with it. He was narrating how it was tough on them as they spent hardly two to three hours of sleep, at times in the airport itself. Helicopter and aero plane maintenance, weather forecast follow up, VIP movement, extra number of planes carrying rescued people etc. kept the personnel at the normally sleepy Jolly Grant airport on tenderhooks. Our chopper took off around 12.20, more than an hour after hour scheduled time as the first flight of the chopper had delayed, and so had returned late, and then the captain had to take a break.

While all of us were fit with ear pads to reduce exposure to the chopper’s howling roar, I was fit with a pair of earphones and a microphone through which I can speak to the captain, in case of an emergency, and the captain can speak to me as well, if required. We were amused that the captain and the first officer were using manual maps to navigate through the forests and high mountains to fly to Pithoragarh. There are no ATCs in the area. So, on the alto meter I could see that the reading could be over 10,000 ft at a point, and suddenly it would show it is between 2000 – 4000 ft, and then it would rise to 8,000 and above in few seconds. The reasons are simple : we were flying over some very steep mountains, so when we were flying on a valley the alto meter showed that we were flying high, and suddenly, as we flew over a cliff, it was within a threatening distance. (No wonder, planes and helicopters crash on a bad weather day as they follow the manual maps which leaves lots of scope for human error.


As we landed in Pithoragarh airport, a  makeshift one, that is being repaired to make it into an all weather one, we were received by the District Collector and a very able leader: Mr. Neeraj Kherwal- which is another story.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Journey for Assessment

30 June 2013 : At last I was leaving for Uttarakhand. It had taken over 10 days for this plan to happen, because I had few other pending works to complete in Bengal, and then required an organization under whose banner I can move. As a RedR India member, I was scheduled to visit Uttarakhand and do a Emergency Needs Assessment of various districts in the first phase. I had been alerted by RedR India that I may have to stay on in Uttarakhand for about 2 - 3 months to help in the coordination of relief and response. When I reached Bolpur with my heavy suitcase and back-back, I found that my ticket had not been confirmed and that several trains are running late. The one that came when I was standing there was so badly packed that people were over-flowing from the train. It would have been impossible for me to go without a confirmed ticket. So, I hired a car and reached Kolkata where I stayed for the night.

01 July 2013 : Almost all my colleagues who would be part of the team had reached by 11.30 am, and I too reached around the same time in Delhi. We were checked in into a hotel, and then we proceeded to the UNICEF office Lodhi Road.  The meeting with UN team took place at the UNDP Conference room. I was a bit discouraged as the entire meeting dwelt around how to fill an assessment format, which was just a rework on the commonly accepted Rapid Assessment Format. This format is usually used within 24 hours or maximum of 72 hours of a disaster. But we were using it two weeks after the disaster had struck. I did not get the key to this, except that we were informed that this assessment will be collated, mapped, and will be shared with the government and other agencies. 

One of the members from the team said in confidence, "My son in the college could have done this survey!" He felt that it was almost sounding like a survey than an assessment. We returned back to the hotel and wondered why are we waiting here in Delhi....

Friday, June 21, 2013

Media and Disasters - Cyclone Aila and the Uttarakhand Floods

The Cyclone Aila hit West Bengal and Bangladesh on May 25 and 26th, 2009, impacting the lives and livelihoods of nearly 6.8 million people in West Bengal alone.  According to the Government records, the disaster hit 28,349 villages of 206 blocks in 18 districts West Bengal killing 193 persons and leaving nearly half a million people homeless. 911,000 houses were partly or fully damaged,   2262 kilometers of roads and over 900 kilometers of river embankments so vital for preservation of ecological sensitive areas of Sunderban were washed away by  the cyclone, salinating the farmlands and inundating the villages. The estimated damage was pegged at US $ 300 million. This warranted a massive relief operation with cost estimation to the tune of Rs. 647 crores (6.47 billion). With additional support from the Union Government, the total volume spent by the government by way of relief, rehabilitation and recovery including embankment repairing would be another 5,000 crore (50 billion) rupees, besides about 50 crores spent by NGOs in relief activities. But, one big grudge was repeated in all inter-agency meetings and even in government meetings: the media did not give due attention to what had happened in West Bengal. There was very little coverage in the English news channels, and very little in the national dailies printed in other states.

In comparison to this, the damage in the state of Uttarakhand in June 2013 is much smaller in terms of territory, in terms of damage to houses, and damage to infrastructure, although more people have died there due to the unpreparedness of the community and a huge traveling population who were visiting the state. But what we see is a huge outcry in the media - both electronic and printed, each one trying to beat the other in reporting about the damage. Why is this difference in attitude of the media. Let's analyze.

Visuals Matter: In the case of cyclone Aila, we do not have cyclone tracking maniacs in the country to shoot visuals and sell it to TV companies. And once the embankments broke, it was so sudden that there was no one to take photos and videos except after the relief camps were set as everything else was under water. But in the case of Uttarakhand, the waters came like a dam-burst and hit with vengeance on anything on the way, and the buildings were collapsing while the media men and people could stand at safer distances and take visuals of it. (Picture courtesy: The Hindu)


Geographical Proximity to Capital: Uttarakhand is hardly a distance from the capital New Delhi. And there was heavy rains at the same time in Delhi, leaving several parts of it inundated, including the Delhi airport. And the fear of a flood in river Yamuna was agog. And the media men and women can fly in an out within an hour. Whereas, in the case of West Bengal, the distance did matter. Besides, there was no fear of any other part of the country under threat. After all, the cyclone is "gone", then why bother about what is gone? After all, it is not cost effective to do live coverage sitting in Delhi about a flood in the Sunderbans. There are more serious matters than that.

Impact Population: In the case of cyclone Aila, the worst affected were the people in the Sunderbans, although millions of others were also affected. But, the point is, the people of Sunderbans are all people who were residents of the area, poor and vulnerable, and had fought through several disasters throughout life. But the population in Uttarakhand is of different nature. Indeed, Uttarakhand is having such flash floods only of late. Secondly, although it is a small state, lot of rich people from other states visit it for going to various Hindu pilgrimage centers. So, you have people from Delhi, Gujarat, Bengal, Maharashtra and several other states are found to have been "impacted" due to the disaster there. There are Agarwals, Chatterjees, Mishras and several other such higher caste people stranded or affected by the floods there. But in the case of Sunderbans, it is all simple agricultural farmers and fisherman. Why bother about those who cannot make much noise!

Improved Technology: With better cellular connectivity, mobile applications, possibility of video uploading, interactive applications, and the huge impact of Google and Android in Indian market which were either not there or were not so prevalent four years ago, have played also a major part in highlighting the Uttarakhand disaster. So, when 18 districts were affected with huge damage to infrastructure and houses in West Bengal, there was hardly any demand for declaring it a "National Calamity" except for some feeble voices coming from the state itself. But, there is a huge demand for declaring the Uttarakhand flood as a national calamity, for it has affected people of several races, castes and states, although in actual number, it may not be as high as the cyclone Aila.

Monday, April 29, 2013

End of a Saga


The Polio Emergency Response started in April 2011 by Core Group in West Bengal will come to an end on 5 May 2013. Dr. Roma Solomon the Director of Core Group Polio Project (CGPP), Mr. Jitendra Awale, Deputy Director of CGPP, Ms. Rina Dey, expert in Behavior Change Communication for CGPP, and Mr. Manojkumar, Data Management Officer of CGPP also are in Kolkata for a valedictory session. The session was organized at Hotel Indismart in Salt Lake with several dignitaries from Unicef, WHO, ADRA India and the partner organizations.
It is both time to thank one another and to appreciate the role of everyone. So, on 26 April, the team traveled to areas supported by Seva Kendra and Women’s Interlink Foundation, the two partners of CGPP where they met the community mobilizers and supervisors and interacted with them, appreciated them and thanked them for their wonderful task in bringing down resistance in most areas to zero levels and in some very hardcore areas under acceptable limits.
On 27th and 28th they spent the whole day at Bolpur, relaxing in our company, enjoying the warmth and love that we had to share with one another. On 29th April, the valedictory session brought to fore the times and hardships the staff went through, the challenges in team building and the role each one played in strengthening emergency response. I had joined this team in April 2011 just for a period of 4 months. But then, the team in Delhi was so friendly and supportive, the task was challenging as the entire team of coordinators, supervisors and mobilizers were new to such response program, and it involved me to set up systems and procedures for networking, linkage with government, Unicef, WHO, Rotary, and managing the balance of relationship between partners. I enjoyed it….cherished it, and love it, as I became part of the CGPP family. CGPP too recognized me for the extra gifts I had by way of analytically looking at issues, programming and communication skills, besides the little knowledge on using technology for program management and monitoring.
Thank you friends for the wonderful support and love! Adieu everyone in the Polio Emergency Respones program. See you again!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cheaters!


The State of West Bengal is under siege! It is under the siege of political leaders who have worked in tandem with non-banking financial entities (known in local parlance as “Chit Fund”) who have siphoned of billions of rupees, most of which was life’s entire savings of poorer families. Some Members of Parliament, ministers and political leaders have been accused of having benefited from their acquaintance with what the Saradha Agency that is in news of late. Every political party is crying foul of the other of having benefited from the group, as the group was dragged into media, real estate, tourism and you name it. After at least three deaths and suicides have been reported due to this micro-finance scam that is haunting the state and after thousands of agents and journalists have lost their job, the governments are trying to wash their hands off. Finally, action was forced upon, and some of the Directors have been detained, including the CEO. The Chief Minister has proposed that cigarettes will be made costlier by 10% more by way of special tax, and 1.5 billion rupees will be recovered through that to pay the small investors and some medium investors. The government plans to put in 3.5 billion to add to it. The large investors and the high medium may not be that lucky as the 5 billion proposed money will not be enough to pay all. At a press conference the Chief Minister asked people to “smoke more so that the money can be recovered fast”, so that the poor can be paid their capital back. Good intention wrought with ill impacts? Many doctors have questioned the reasoning as to what about the health impact of increased smoking.
The government, including the Chief Minister, at the state seems to have some good intentions to put things in order. The main culprits have been arrested, and she has promised more action, even if the other culprits come from her own party. It is also important that the investigation is done in a non-partisan manner, and all those who cheated the poor are brought to book soon. Or else, the party that came to power on pro-poor issues may end up paying the price. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Early Alert System : Restarted


The SMS Based Early Alerts has been restarted. The system was conditioned in the last year due to severe regulations from TRAI, over 60% of people's phones attached to DND and several people in the community we serve changing their phones. Now, we have worked out an automated system, but it will work only on a fresh one time request from those who wish to receive it. We shall continue to work further to improve our services to you.

People living in India may register by sending an SMS with the text ALERT INDIA from your phone to 09434753999. On receiving the message a confirmation message will be sent to the sender's phone within 30 seconds.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Mangrove Forest Planning

On the request of a noted non-profit organization, CKS has planned to take up mapping of prospective areas where mangrove can be planted in the most vulnerable blocks of Sunderbans. As a prelude to this,  a model map has been created for one panchayat- Satjelia island in Gosaba block of South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, India. We have identified 109 plots accumulating to about 123 acres of land.

Interested NGOS and INGOs may contact CKS for support in this regards and for similar area based planning. For viewing we have placed only the plot identification number without mentioning the area of each plot separately as the data will have to go through the final verification process from our field team.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Training the NDRF

On 3 March National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)' second Battalion organized a workshop for about 225 soldiers who are usually involved in Disaster Response in the country, and at times, if need arises internationally. The program was inaugurated by Director General of NDRF Mr. P.M. Nair. Mrs. Kavita Singh, a professor from the National University of Juridical Sciences spoke on the legal framework for protection of women and she exhorted the soldiers to be sensitive towards the rights of women. A drama group from the city through various interactive activities focused on team effort and motivation. I had the privilege of interacting with the soldiers on Gender Needs in Emergencies - with focus on Evacuation, Search & Rescue and Camp Management. Since NDRF is involved in those activities in emergencies, the brief presentation, two short videos, couple of case stories and the discussion points were highly appreciated and found to be useful. 

Since this was my first external major program after the accident on 5 Feb, I was delighted that I could manage the session better than I thought I might end up with, as the training was in Hindi. Ms. Megan and Ms. Kaytlyn, two students from Seattle University also joined the program as observers. We thank the Commandant of the 2nd Battalion Mr. Sukhdev Raj and the Deputy Commandant Mr. Mukesh Verma for organizing such wonderful program for the whole day for the soldiers who can make a difference between life and death in times of disasters. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Days of Healing

On 4 Feb I was again in Kolkata for training of the Project Coordinators and Block Supervisors of the polio eradication program. On 5th Feb evening, once the training was over, I left for Bolpur via Bardhamman. At Bardhamman station, while waiting for the local train to arrive as I was scheduled to leave at 8.10 pm, at about 7.50 pm, a train carrying coal was to cross through the same platform. The train came in with a loud thud and lot of fire above one of the containers as it was brushing against the overhead electric cables. People started running for cover as the fire and the blasts were growing big. While a few of us were trying to shout to the driver about the danger, he was still pulling the train on to the platform. Soon, everyone had to run for shelter, as we jumped on to the empty tracks to rush towards an empty platform far off. At that time someone unintentionally pushed me from behind and I fell on the tracks! As I got up immediately I saw that I was bleeding profusely from my head with more scratches on my left knee and pain in my right palm. Few fellow passengers gathered and asked me to go for first aid at the train station itself. They said that I have a very "dangerous" cut, which I was not able to see anyway. All that I know was that my hand kerchief is already soaked in blood, and now I was trying to  cover with my shawl, but it was still bleeding heavily and the shawl was of little help.

I walked out of the station, knowing that it may not be safe for me to be in the station with lot of unknown people and severe head injury. So, I took a rickshaw, went to Asansol Burdwan Seva Kendra (ABSK), an NGO run by the diocese of Asansol, which is situated about 5 minutes ride from the station. The Director of the institution, Fr. Dolphy is a friend of mine. Soon I was taken care of and by 8.45 I was in the operation theater of a nursing home, and was given 14 stitches (3 on the nose, 2 above the right eye and nine on the forehead). I rested that night in ABSK and returned to Bolpur on 6th morning. I must thank Fr. Dolphy and few of his staff who took care of me at the crucial hours, Shubhra for being the gem as I recovered over the days with swollen eyes and severe pain and for all the love she gave, and whole lot of friends and family members who visited me, called me to check on my health, prayed for me and for being a wonderful support. Eleven days have rolled by. I am just getting fit and fine. Hope to begin to be more and more functional in the coming days. Thank you friends!

Rush to Delhi and Kolkata

On 1 Feb, Tuesday, I left by the morning, 7.00 Indigo flight to Delhi on an invitation by CORE Group to visit ZMQ technologies in Gurgaon, Delhi. The flight could not land in Delhi for over 1.10 minutes, and so, instead of landing at 9.10, landed at 10.20, 20 minutes later than the scheduled time of the meeting, and reached the venue at 11.00. We were air borne as we kept rounding the Delhi sky for the entire period. What a colossal waste of gas / petrol although these planes and airports are enabled with CAT-III facilities! Since ZMQ and CORE Group team were waiting for me, the delayed the meeting to 10.45, and so, I did not miss much, and was able to catch up quickly with a brief given to me in couple of minutes. The day's discussions were about the new software that CORE Group is planning with technical support from ZMQ. The software will help community volunteers to update, retrieve and use data relating to every family / child in their areas so that immunization and health of the children in the families can be increased. My night return flight of Air India AI-021 scheduled to leave Delhi at 8.15 pm, left at 11.15 and I landed at 1.20 am. By the time I went to bed it was 3.30 am. (Missed meeting any of my friends in Delhi!)
The next day, 2 Feb 2013, I went to participate in the South East Asian conference on Public Health, held at Science City, Kolkata. The program was very interesting as lot of people from several parts of the country and few other countries were participating in the program. I also met a lot of doctors, engineers, students and teachers from various walks of life, interested in public health. The program went off smoothly. Of course, from CORE Group we had put up a stall in the venue which was frequented by hundreds of people throughout the day.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Support in North Dinajpur


With the financial support of UNICEF, the North Dinajpur District Department of Health and Family Welfare has taken up a community mobilization program for increasing booth coverage for polio programs in six panchayats of Goalpukur I Block of North Dinajpur district. Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS) is supporting the program with human resource and technical support. On behalf of CKS, Dr. Prabir Chatterjee is leading the team, with Mr. Lukman of CKS assisting him and six other persons have been engaged in the program so that the program is implemented properly. The program involves one week of active involvement of (a) health personnel in ensuring that the vaccine delivery is done properly and on time; (b) schools and children are mobilized to bring in other children to the  polio booth on Sunday 20, Jan 2013; (c) Awareness is created in community through children's rallies, influencer meetings, involvement of local government officials and elected representatives; (d) Churches and mosques in the area announce about the polio program and ask people to take the children for vaccination to the booth, and not wait for vaccinators to visit their homes; (e) increase visibility of the program through increased announcements through loudspeakers etc. We are happy to share couple of photos from the school rallies organized in two panchayats.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Arrival Terminal

Megan at breakfast table
Kaytlyn having breakfast
Xenia enjoying breakfast
On 6 Jan, Ms. Xenia, a friend whom I had met in September 2007 over a flight from Frankfurt to Dubai, and then later on got connected through Facebook. She is now a business woman and has come to India and wants to explore few other countries so that she can have more taste of the Asian continent. Megan and Kaytlyn are from Seattle University. They would be staying with me for ten weeks. One of them want to know more about disaster management plans and wants to help in improving upon one of the plans. The other wants to help in providing some ideas for rural economy as she spends the day analyzing more options for rural products in the global market. Interesting concepts ! Welcome ladies.....

By the way, Megan's luggage was lost by Singapore Airlines, and it was delayed by 24 hours, and she got it nearly after 48 hours. She was given 2500 rupees by the airlines in damages and the train fare for going again  to airport to collect the baggage.

Beginning the New Year !

The New Year seem to have a lot for me. Last year I had crossed the number of blogs for the last two years, and hope to cross the previous years in this year. The year started with three travels to Kolkata and one to North Dinajpur district of West Bengal. I was also busy with budgetary revisions for the USAID supported polio eradication program through CORE Group. UNICEF also came forward to support increasing number of children being immunized in polio booths in North Dinajpur district of West Bengal. I attended the District Task Force meetings in Howrah and in North Dinajpur. A friend from Germany and two from the United States have come. So, all these is keeping me busy as well. Meanwhile got the sad news of the death of the mother of my close friend, Dr. Erich Weiser, in Germany. 

As the number of activities increases, it also looks like due to busy schedule it may be difficult to be on touch friends through mails and various networks. I need to balance. I need to grow!