India Together, 2007: ‘Still Suffering, Five Years Later’

In a room where much of the space has been gobbled up by a steel cupboard, a bed and a sewing machine, Ayeshabibi Pathan sits on the floor, reminiscing about the dhamaal of five years ago, and the instant in which her life changed forever. "A bullet killed my husband," she says. "We don't know if the police fired at him, or if the mob did. The mob had all kinds of weapons, and the atmosphere then was such that you didn't know who was doing what."

In the statistics put out by the Gujarat Government, Ayeshabibi's husband is just another number that adds up to what activists say is an understated figure of over 1,000 people killed in the riots of 2002 (a majority of them Muslims). In her household in Faisal Park, Ahmedabad, located in a neighbourhood where riot victims have been rehabilitated by a non-government agency, his death is an immeasurable, palpable loss, and grief a shadow persistently knocking at the door.

(The rest of the report can be accessed here.)

India Together, 2007: The POTA families of Godhra

The scrapyard that leads to Rehmat Nagar in Godhra, in Panchmahal district in Gujarat, appears to be an indicator of the squalor that one's about to witness. A dusty, unpaved path serves as the access road to this settlement, comprising of hovels with red-tiled roofs. A few children and women squat on the middle of the path, next to a water container, washing vessels or filling steel pots. The doors are opened by children, and sometimes by women, if they are home; men are rarely to be seen around. Most of the shacks are bereft of furniture, the starkness of the rooms reflecting the silences and absences that today mark the lives of Rehmat Nagar's inhabitants.

The world outside the settlement refers to them as "POTA families". On February 27, 2002, after 59 people were killed in a fire that engulfed the S-6 coach of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra station, the town catapulted into notoriety. Godhra became the reason for targeting the Muslim community in Gujarat - a Muslim mob is said to have burnt the coach carrying Hindu karsevaks - and, in the ensuing riots, over a 1,000 people, a majority of them Muslims, were killed.

In Godhra, the police arrested many Muslim men living in areas close to the railway station and charged them under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) for burning the train. The women at Rehmat Nagar, which is about four kilometres from the railway station, say the police turned up on the evening of the horrific Sabarmati Express tragedy, barged into the houses and picked up men - their husbands or their sons - at random.

(The rest of the report can be accessed here.)

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, 2007: Lessons in Despair

Ruksana Banu’s life revolves around the certainties of household chores. Every day, she washes clothes, cooks meals, cleans vessels and, occasionally, goes for sewing classes near her house. She adores two Hindi soaps on television, ostensibly centred around women. Sometimes, she remembers the dreams she had before 2002, and then, the mountainous garbage dump that abuts her house in Citizen Nagar, Ahmedabad, almost seems to represent the crash-landing of those cherished hopes.

She was a class VIII student in a school in Naroda when the carnage happened. Her house was destroyed, and her neighbours hacked and burnt alive. Rendered homeless, she and her family eventually secured a roof over their heads in Citizen Nagar, where a relief committee had constructed houses for riot victims. Today, her father, who owns a pushcart, finds it difficult to make a living in his new neighbourhood. There are no municipal schools in the area, and the family cannot afford to send the children -- Ruksana has a 14-year-old brother -- to the private school nearby.

"We can't pay the fees," says Ruksana. "But I want to study and become a pilot."

There are no studies chronicling the stories of Ruksana and hundreds of others like her, silent victims of the riots that occurred almost five years ago, killing, according to Gujarat government figures, over a 1,000, three-fourths of them Muslims. (Activists estimate the number of deaths is over 2,000.)

No one knows how many children dropped out of school in the aftermath of the riots, but the neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad are signposted with reminders of discarded hopes. On a clear noon there are little girls sitting outside their homes, rolling agarbattis. Older girls wash vessels or clothes and dry them in the sun. Several of the boys are out working. Livelihoods are difficult to find and, as house budgets shrink, children's education faces the first and almost always fatal cut.

Shakeel Ahmad, administrator of the Islamic Relief Committee, Gujarat, says that the internal displacement caused by the riots directly affected the education of several children. He explains, "Many Muslim families migrated to places that they considered safe, like Juhapura, but the schools there were already overcrowded." It doesn't help that Muslim pockets have little or no civic and educational facilities.

(An edited version of this report can be accessed here.)

India Together, 2006: The Next Frontier in Education

In a quiet residential neighbourhood in Pudupariyaram, Palakkad, it's possible to ‘hear’ the Mannadiar Memorial Upper Primary School much before seeing it. The sound of chattering children winds down the road, drawing attention to a low-roofed, red-tiled structure that resembles a small house much more than a school.

It's from this unlikely setting that stories of ordinary children with extraordinary courage unfold every day. Ayesha*, a seventh standard student, speaks to her teachers of being ill-treated by her stepmother and beaten by her father, who's almost always drunk. Rajesh* does odd jobs in the mornings to earn money to support his ailing mother, and comes rushing to school, inevitably a bit late daily. A. Shobhana, an English teacher, recalls a boy who would sit for his seventh standard lessons with a knife stashed in his bag — to prevent his drunk father from using it to "kill" his mother, a threat the father made all too often.

Yet, like most of the other students battling poverty and domestic violence, these children have never missed a day at school. Watching their smiling faces at lunch, it's impossible to trace their worries as they stand patiently in a queue for their share of rice and payar (a kind of beans), served as part of the mid-day meal scheme.

(An edited version of the report can be accessed here.)

India Together, 2005: Discrimination in the name of inclusion

Rajeev Kumar was elated when he heard of a Delhi High Court order early last year, directing all public schools to reserve up to 25 percent of seats for students from the economically weaker sections of the society. An activist with the non-government organisation Parivartan, Kumar decided to seek admission for his daughter in a neighbourhood school in East Delhi, according to the rule. Little did he bargain for the difficulties that were to follow.

"The school just would not admit my daughter," says Kumar. "I had to ask the Education Department to provide details of the court order under the Right to Information Act." It took about four months to get the necessary information and present it before the school authorities, who then grudgingly admitted his daughter. "Not one school is admitting poor students of their own volition," says Kumar. "It's only when there is pressure from parents and activists that they admit students."  

(The rest of the article can be accessed here. In April 2006, this report won the Developing Asia Journalism Award instituted by the Asian Development Bank Institute, Manila.)

Himal Southasian, 2007: Studies in Isolation: The Schools of Ahmedabad

In a room with blue walls full of charts about birds, fruits and vegetables, 10-year-old Tamanna sits on the floor, drawing on sheets of paper strategically folded to resemble greeting cards. The room, on the first floor of a modest building in the Siding Service locality of Ahmedabad, functions as a learning centre run by the NGO Pratham.

“Earlier, we were in the Muslim part of the area,” says Kanchanben Rathod, a teacher. “But Hindu children, especially girls, wouldn’t come there, so we had to move to this place.”

Tamanna, whose shy smiles preface her every sentence, interjects: “The Muslim children were troubling us; we were frightened of them. So I stopped going there.”

A few kilometres away at Allah Nagar, where vegetable vendors, children and goats jostle for space in the narrow paths of the slum settlement, is another learning centre managed by Pratham. Many of these children, also leaning against blue walls as they open their bags, wear skull caps. Mothers bring little girls, often wailing as they shake their pigtails in defiance, into the classroom, and stop to chat with the teacher. There are no Hindus in this area, and certainly none in the classroom.  

Last November in Ahmedabad, where almost everyone is forced to navigate between real and imagined boundaries drawn on the basis of religion, a few social workers got together to attempt to bridge the divide between Siding Service and Allah Nagar. They organised a cricket match for the children.

That game quickly came to be referred to as the “India-Pakistan” match, says Jigna Rathod, who works with Pratham. “Sometimes, children say such things,” she adds. Afterwards, the children traded insults and threw stones, recalls Anjana Parmar, another Pratham worker. Clearly, even a playground could not be neutral terrain, with the scorecard heavy with bias and prejudice before the game could even get underway.

(The rest of the report can be accessed here. In November 2008, this report won the Developing Asia Journalism Award instituted by the Asian Development Bank Institute, Tokyo. More information on the awards here.)

Infochange India, 2008: In Gujarat’s Ghettos

The exteriors of the one-room tenements in Rahimabad Society in Devgarh Baria, in Gujarat's Dahod district, are painted pink, a bright colour that belies the darkness inside the houses. Around 75 families live in these small homes without even basic facilities like sanitation, access roads and water supply. Livelihoods are hard to come by here. There are no good schools or hospitals nearby. Perhaps that's part of the reason why the 475-odd inhabitants of the society, who have been living here for the past six years, don't call it their home. Perhaps it's also because their roots lie elsewhere, in a village where they had farms or shops, where their children went to school, and where their lives followed trajectories they had chosen for themselves.

Such luxuries are noticeably absent in the unpaved paths in and around Rahimabad Society, which houses survivors of the horrific religious violence that Gujarat witnessed in 2002. According to Gujarat government estimates, which activists allege are on the conservative side, over 1,000 people -- most of them belonging to the Muslim community -- were killed during the riots. A report published by the Concerned Citizens Tribunal in 2002 estimated that the violence also resulted in the displacement of around 250,000 people. Over 4,500 families are still living in what are called 'relief colonies', much like Rahimabad Society, unable to return to their homes, from which they were hounded out for no reason except that they were Muslims.

(The rest of this report can be accessed here. This report won the Every Human has Rights Media Awards in December 2008, instituted by the NGO Elders and Internews along with Amnesty International. More information on the awards here.)

Himal Southasian, 2008: Message in a Dabba

The phone rings in a one-room office in Navyug Mansion, located in the Grant Road area of south Bombay. Forty-nine-year-old Shivaji Sakaram Sawant, who has been delivering dabbas for the past 20 years, picks up the receiver. The caller is a customer concerned that her tiffin box had not been returned to her home the previous day. After a few questions, it turns out that Sawant knows not only the road on which her apartment complex is located, but also the number of her flat and the office where the tiffin is delivered every day. He assures her that the missing tiffin will be located and returned to her house by evening, along with the day’s dabba. Perhaps it is the confident way in which Sawant speaks, or the fact that he knows the trajectory of an otherwise inconspicuous dabba, but the customer at the other end is clearly relieved. The parting tone is gracious and affable. Sawant then joins his colleagues, who have now arrived at the office – a pit-stop for dabbawallas delivering tiffins in this area – and starts his own lunch.

Sawant’s deft handling of a customer in distress reflects why Bombay’s century-old faith in its famed dabbawalla network has never been misplaced. It also explains why corporate India, which in the past has limited itself to picking up management tips from the dabbawallas’ flawless delivery system and notable teamwork, is today moving to tap their extensive client base in order to advertise and sell their products.

About 5000 dabbawallas, each of whom deals with 35 to 40 customers, collectively deliver around two lakh tiffin boxes across Bombay every day. They are so efficient that they have in recent years become something of an international phenomenon. They are regularly asked to deliver presentations across the world, including in many of India’s top management institutes.

The men in white caps and white kurtas or shirts – the instantly recognisable dabbawalla uniform – have also been the subject of several flattering reports in the national and international media. An article published in the Financial Times in May 2007 said that neither “the rickety state of Mumbai’s infrastructure” nor the “catastrophic” monsoon rains “faze the dabbawallas”. Considering this celebrity status, it was just a matter of time before India’s corporates started eyeing dabbas as a platform for product placement.

(The rest of the piece can be accessed here.)