Monthly Archives: January 2006

Don’t Ask What is Wrong With Them, Ask What is Wrong With Me

Read all the comments on my previous posts dealing with hospitals.. to me it all goes back to what was written in the first post: taking responsibility..

There is a huge abyss between what should be, and what is in India.. On paper there are schools, and medical centres and much else for which even the very poor contribute each time they purchase a simple packet of biscuit or a box of matches.. There are rights guaranteed by the constitution and duties that many are not aware of…

We are supposed to be a democracy and the biggest one in the world at that, but except of casting a vote, the humble Indian has not been told what democracy means.

To most democracy or freedom means a new form of feudalism where the erstwhile landlord has been replaced by the formidable duo of politician/bureaucrat who wields the same kind of power on the teeming millions. The tools of democracy remain with this duo and are not shared and taught to all.

Many years back on a visit to my state of origin – Bihar – I met an old low caste man who to my utter dismay praised the zamindar system. His logic was simple and difficult to counter: he felt that a couple of insults and even blows was little to pay for the father figure of the landlord who was ever present in his life be it in helping him marry his daughter or buy wood for the pyre of his dead parents . He stared at the tiny land holding he ‘owned’ and that had only brought him debts he could never pay back..

Over the years, I have pondered over those words. They seem to ring true… we removed something but did not replace it with something tangible..

Nothing angers me more than a child entering my office with his held bowed and his voice barely audible.. Nothing frigthened me more than a 8 year old girl not knowing why the school tacher had beaten her and convinced that she must have done something wrong..

Much is said about corruption and the ways to eradicate it.. maybe one way is to make simple Indians aware of tools like the Right to Information.. and to make every Indian a responsible citizen.. educating India has to trancend the 3 Rs… and move ahead..

Looking with one’s heart

If the first lesson was on assuming responsibility the next one would be learning to look with one’s heart.. In today’s world we have almost been programmed to look for the bad, the wrong, the ugly… and yet if one stopped to think, there is much more good than bad..

Coming back to the past six years where I have to redifine much of what I held as true, I have been saddened by the ease with which people bundle almost everything as bad. Seems to be the easy way to ease your own conscience..

Looking with one’s heart also means making your own decisions and not follow blindly what others think or say. It means given the other person a chance, it means accepting to walk a different path, it means having the courage to stand for what you think right..

And looking with one’s heart is the prerogative of each and everyone of us.. I must confess that sometimes it is seems to daunting a task for one individual, but then tiny miracles happen and set you back on course.

I had gone to visit Nanhe and Babli. In the same ward lay a tiny soul, barely two months on our planet, whith a hole in her heart.. a little girl no one was really willing to invest in.. and yet before I could even apply my rational ways, Sitaram, an illiterate partially paralysed man, had already taken charge..Sitaram is the father of the first child who had an open heart surgery with our help and since has made it his mission to help others, and he is a man for whom nothing is impossible..and he who possessed nothing but a heart in the right place, was willing to invest in Chetna.

Strange how real lessons in life come from the most unexpected quarters… but do we have the wisdom to hear them..

Maybe that is what me must teach children…

Assuming Responsibility

As I sat deciding what to write in the very first post on this rather daunting blog, I browsed through it and was touched by the title of Mallika’s book: 100 Promises to My Baby.
That was my cue…

After almost 6 years of working with children in the slums sharing their hopes and aspirations, their joy and sorrow, I thought that I had earned the right to write a book entitled: 10 lessons for the children of India.

After much thought, I decided that the first lesson would be on the importance of assuming responsibility. I guess that one of the worst human failures of our times, in both public and personal lives, is to always look for an outside reason for all that is wrong. If there is no water in the tap, it is the fault of the government, the political, the neighbour, just anyone but me.. the same can be said about just everything around.

Have you ever stopped to think how much we do to save water, or that we are in fact the ones who placed the politician where he is..

Life is always a matter of how you look at things, and maybe what we should teach the children of India is to look at them in the right way, placing yourself at the centre of the problems you wish to address: then real solutions appear..

Yes undoubtedly, the first lesson would be on assuming responsibility.

World Good News Day

In the last few years, everytime I go through news… either in the newspapers or on television, I discover that news all over the world means bad news. What used to be on the 9th or the 11th page of a newspaper, one finds on the front pages these days.

Satellite channel is relatively new in India, and so are the numerous news channels. Every ten minutes you have a "breaking news" sign flashing on almost all the channels. Breaking news is always about some disaster / catastrophe / murder / rape / deceit / bribery / political upheaval. Newspapers are mostly carrying the similar kind of news in bold letters.

To me such news items add to an unknown fear. Fear of living in a world where nothing is right. I want to believe that goodness also exists. I want to have faith in kindness, in honesty, and I do see all this around me.

Today everything has zeroed down to how you market things:

Fathers day / Mothers Day / Independence Day / Friendship Day / Valentines Day / Teachers Day.

Is it possible to expect a WORLD GOOD NEWS DAY?

On that day, whether on television or in the newspapers, we only read good news? We only read about love, passion, goodness. We only read stories of courage, of honesty, of joy, of trust?

Can that day be 31st of December… just a thought.

Dissent at Home, as Abroad, for Colas

Farmers in rural India and students in American universities may have more in common than it would seem. While Cola companies have run into opposition in several states in India, student bodies in North America are pressuring universities to wind up contracts letting the firms exclusively sell water and soft drinks on campus.

Labour rights’ violations in Colombia and water rights of local communities in India have become a cause of concern for Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, as students across campuses in United States and Canada are beginning to question unethical practices of the companies. The firms impact the lives of students in North America as they usually have exclusive contracts with universities which prevent products of other companies besides their own to be sold on campuses. Several student bodies are up in arms as they think that they should have the freedom to choose their products and their choices should not be dictated by corporations like Coke and Pepsi. The firms are also making attempts to replace the free water fountains in campuses with their vending machines.

Developments in India reverberated in United States, when at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the Students Organized for Labour and Economic Equity (SOLE) complained to the administration on November 30, 2004, about a labour rights issue in Colombia and three areas of concern regarding Coke in India. The India concerns included cadmium in sludge coming out of Coca Cola plants, ground water depletion by bottling plants and presence of pesticides in beverage products. University authorities had asked Coca Cola to respond to these concerns and the Vendor Code of Conduct Dispute Review Board of the University had recommended strict action against the company in case of non-compliance with their Vendor Code of Conduct. On 29 December 2005, University authorities suspended their contract with Coca Cola.

In a major development at McMaster University in Canada, students in a referendum on 19 October 2005 unambiguously disapproved of the Coca Cola’s $6 million exclusive contract with their University. The referendum was an official one and a first in the history of the University. A movement initiated by a students’ organization ‘Campus Choice’ had informed the larger community of students of irresponsible behaviour of Coca Cola in India and Colombia. The referendum is expected to force the McMaster Students Union and University authorities to review the contract with Coca Cola.

York University in Toronto is also likely to review its decade long exclusivity contract with Pepsi which is to end in 2008, as student groups have become suspicious of its true value to the community. In the mid 1990s the students at this University had led a five year boycott of Pepsi products following the opening of their operation facilities in Burma – a country with a poor human rights track record.

Students are also opposing administrations setting up their campuses as exclusive billboards for advertisement campaigns. Students are asking why workers in Coke plants in Colombia must bear the externalities of Coke so that the company can make profits. Why should the people in India of Mehandiganj, Varanasi or Plachimada, Kerala pay for the costs of making products on which the company makes huge profits? Who accounts for the externalities that result in Coke’s profits? Coke and Pepsi are producing externalities – health problems, water depletion, pollution — within a free market econom. These are costs they are not accounting for and not paying for.

The companies’ responses to the concerns of students is not helping. On 4 October 2005, a documentary ‘Mehandiganj – Where Life is at Stake’ was screened on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta to discuss the movement for rights over water of local communities going on in rural areas of Varanasi. After the screening, Harry J Ott, Director of Global Water Resources Center at Coca Cola’s international headquarters, next door to the campus, claimed that he had Groundwater Board data available from India to show that water table had, in fact, risen at Mehandiganj, since the bottling plant of the company was set up there.

Ott was more willing to believe government data over vivid pictures of about 2000 people protesting against the plant in November 2004, shown in the film just screened. Farmers in Mehdiganj confirm the drop in the water table, in some cases upto 50 feet. They do not know how Coca Cola obtained figures from groundwater board claiming that the water table has gone up. Ott also claimed that the company has undertaken watershed management exercises all over the country to compensate for the depleting water tables.

When it was pointed out to him that there was no proof of any such attempt in Mehandiganj, Varanasi, he responded that the effort here was being done inside the plant premises! Harry Ott apparently has no idea of how big a catchment area is required to compensate for the water table being depleted by its four tube wells continuously operating inside the plant. Besides, if indeed the bottling plants are able to collect enough water to recharge the local ground water and even cause it to rise, why then do they not simply use that water for their operations? After all, the rain water is cleaner than the ground water that has various chemicals leaching into it and this would save the company major costs attributed to water filtration processes.

At Carleton University in Ottawa, on 19 October 2005, the students attending a meeting similar to the one at Georgia Tech, asserted that they have a right to free drinking water from public fountains and Coke and Pepsi should not force them to buy bottled water. It is reported that a new building on the campus of University of British Columbia will not have any water fountains. Students expressed their resentment over this.

Companies like Coke and Pepsi are not willing to clean up pesticide residues in their products being sold in India. It has been more than 2 years since the Centre for Science and Environment in 2003 revealed the presence of pesticides in Coke and Pepsi products in India. This was later confirmed by a Joint Parliamentary Committee report. Still, no action has been taken yet either by the government or the companies themselves to remove pesticide residues from the products. Meanwhile, the Jaipur High Court had ordered Coke and Pepsi to mention pesticides’ levels on their products, an order which the firms did not follow.

Coca Cola also refuses to acknowledge the presence of Cadmium in its sludge despite two reports — one from the University of Exeter and the other from the Kerala Pollution Control Board — independently confirming the presence of Cadmium in sludge coming out of the Plachimada plant. Can the firms be expected to do the more tedious task of watershed management to conserve water for Indian farmers?

In fact, in 2004, the Joint Parliamentary Committee noted with shock that soft drinks as an industry were not regulated. To set up their plants in India, Coke and Pepsi just need a no-objection certificate from the Food Department, the State Pollution Control Board (state government) and the local government (municipality or panchayat). In absence of any law regulating their water usage, they have made use of the fact that anybody owning a piece of land also has the ‘right’ to use water from underneath it. Cola firms do not even classify as an industry and hence do not come under the lens of the EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) process of the Ministry of the Environment. Other industries are required to prepare an EIA report as part of the clearance process. Moreover, nobody had realised that the Cola companies would use so much water.

Coincidentally, on this side of the globe, farmers in India are saying the same thing students on the other side of the globe are. They are asking Coke and Pepsi to leave their water alone so that it is available to them for drinking and irrigation purposes. Drawing away the water raises the question of the human rights of farming communities, in addition to the abuse they face at the hands of the local police and private security guards of Coca Cola whenever they try to organize a protest outside plant gates. The farmers of India and students on North American university campuses are essentially saying the same thing – ‘Stop privatisation of water!’ . My friend and fellow Intentblog blogger Vijay Sappani will do the second part on this story.

Love,
Sandeep

Republished with permission from India Together

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