Saturday, June 30, 2012

65 years of Independence, and the state of health care infrastructure in India is shockingly poor

I usually look forward to the weekends. Even though there are no holidays as such for one who works more from home than from the office, the weekends continue to bring a sort of leisurely charm. When the weather is on your side and when there is the Euro Cup and Wimbledon going, it’s quite a lot to keep you in cheer. The past few days have, however, been slightly unnerving, what with a senior member of the family unwell and various tests conducted and reports collected. There have been visits to the doctor, the specialist and others for gathering varied shades of opinion.

It’s only when you read stories about the real India, that you realise how lucky we all are, born and brought up in the towns and cities, where access to most things basic is not very difficult, where there are indeed doctors and specialists to consult. While editing stories for a journal, I was left wondering how little we have achieved as a country even if you are to consider something as basic as infrastructure. Good roads, clean drinking water, proper transport… health care. Do we even realise that as we click pictures on Fb or chat or call, there are pregnant women desperate to get to a clinic miles away, that there is no transport worth the name to take them, that in the so-called public health centres or clinics, there are no doctors. And people, especially the tribals, the poor, the villagers, are struggling just to be alive. 

Yes, sixty-five years of Independence, and the state of health care infrastructure in our country is shockingly poor. In rural India, home to 70 per cent of the population, many villages still remain cut off. If there is a medical emergency there is no hospital to go to, transport is non-existent, the so-called public health centres do not function properly, there are no doctors or nurses. In many villages in Odisha, senior medical officers’ posts have been lying vacant for the past 12 years; there is no anaesthetist, so no major surgery. No gynaecologist either. It’s a nightmare for pregnant women, many babies die after being born due lack of medical intervention; deaths among infants below five years have been scored at 90 for every 1000 children. In these parts, life lies, well, truly in God’s hands 

In Sikkim, the September 2011 quake turned out to be an eye-opener. People saw firsthand the inadequacy of the state’s healthcare system. The only place that offered hope to the stricken people was Gangtok, the state capital – there were hospitals there capable of handling emergencies. One tribal woman was lucky; she gave birth to a baby minutes after being airlifted from her village to Gangtok. It’s a sad reflection of how an Indian state lies cut off, neglected and forgotten. Will P.A. Sangma contesting the Presidential election change anything on the ground? We all know what the answer is.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Agents of change: Children show the way

The Press Institute of India and the Chennai Press Club in partnership with UNICEF conducted recently a media engagement programme with children whose participation has brought about changes in local communities and local governments. UNICEF continues to support and strengthen children and young people in civic engagement initiatives and networks in Tamil Nadu. There are child participation groups, which can be termed as models in Tamil Nadu, which work towards realising child rights. The children have been participating in issues concerning them in local communities and local governance and bringing about changes that help the realisation of child rights. The programme held at the Chennai Press Club auditorium saw children, positive agents of change, interacting directly with the media.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, available to every person in India, including children. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that children should be active participants in any decision-making process that impacts their lives, and their views given due consideration in accordance with their age and maturity. Children and young people can participate at multiple levels and in different contexts, from the personal to the global, and in a range of institutional settings, from the household and school to the municipal council and global advocacy processes.

It was really to showcase examples of children-led advocacy and to highlight the fact that such changes lead to betterment of society that the programme was conducted. What surprised me most was the confidence the children showed in speaking to the media. The hall was packed with photographers, television cameramen and reporters, but it only seemed to enthuse the children to speak out, loud and clear. Even girls, as young as the ones you see in the picture, did not let go of the mike easily. Lessons for some of our PR and communication practitioners... We are hoping these exercises (this is the second in a series of six planned) will translate into meaningful stories in the press and media, and lead to greater motivation and participation. 

Picture shows yours truly with Sugata Roy, UNICEF Communications head (bespectacled, centre), and some of the children at the Chennai Press Club.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One helluva summer trip, eh?

Talking about Kulu Manali and the hills, let me get back to the whirlwind tour my cousins braved to make in the summer. It turned out to be quite a trip really. No sooner did they arrive in Delhi after a long train journey, than first my nephew and then one of my cousins swooned and fell. A splash of water and sips of juice brought them back in the reckoning for the long trip ahead. The Delhi heat can be unbearable for the visitor. The tour operator had arranged a non-AC bus to take the forty or so of them (it was one big group) to Agra, Ayodhya, Mathura, Bodh Gaya, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kulu Manali, and, finally, the Wagah Border. My cousins say they must (between the four of them) have spent more than Rs 3000 on water on the trip.

The puris in Mathura did most of them no good. To add insult to injury, the operator came around to distribute Eldopar capsules. Apparently, this was a yearly occurrence in Mathura and every year he would hope it wouldn’t happen. But this year was no different. In Ayodhya, my cousins and all those in queue were frisked so badly at many places, it was like being molested, they said. At the end of it, all that they could see was a small idol of Lord Rama from several feet away. There were so many policemen and soldiers deployed to guard the site, guns in hand, behind sandbags... like waiting for Godot. Such a waste of human resource! Don’t we see that so often in our cities too?

The worst experience, they recount, was at the Wagah Border. On the Indian side, there were hundreds waiting to see the change of guard. On the Pakistani side, hardly anybody. A senor ranking army officer got (at least tried to) the adrenalin and spirits flowing by talking about the ‘enemy’. After hours of waiting, at the appointed time when the floodgates were opened, the crowd surged forward and the inevitable happened: there was a stampede. My nephew was tossed aside to one side; his uncle to another. My cousins, wise women, decided not to go forward and beat a hasty retreat, sideways, I guess. All this in scorching heat with no head cover whatsoever. Not end of the story. The operator had booked them all by second-class sleeper from Delhi.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Oh to be up in the hills, like Mr Bond

Who doesn’t envy Ruskin Bond! I do. Every time I read about him or see his picture in the newspaper I wonder, if only life had been different and I had had the gift of storytelling like he had and the good fortune to have my books sold, I, too would have chosen a place far away from the maddening crowd, the offal, the noise and the traffic – up in the hills where the climes are cooler and you feel twenty years younger.

A week or so ago, Mr Bond was in Chennai and as my daughter got several of his books (including some of the old ones she had bought as a kid) autographed, she asked him for his email ID. Come over to Shimla, he quipped… That’s God’s gift, too. To be able to say something like that. Pure and simple luxuries that are not gifted to many. Well, if I was a good enough writer, I might have said the same thing: come over to Nainital or Dalhousie or Kullu Manali…

Oh, not Kullu Manali. My cousins and a nephew are just back after a whirlwind tour of north India. Kullu Manali, they say, is warm! Yesterday, when I met another cousin at a family do, he said the same thing – Coonoor is warm. With the way we are destroying our forests and chopping down trees mercilessly, all this comes as no major surprise. It may only be a matter of time before we begin to see old homes and bungalows in the hills being bulldozed by ‘developers’ to make way for skyscrapers. What a shame that will be!

Mr Bond is infinitely lucky. But even he knows only too well (and writes about it, too) that the Shimla of today isn’t quite the Simla of old. Am not sure whether the famous mall retains its old-world charm. Darjeeling’s, I’m told, does.

Well, I have The Room on the Roof and Mr Oliver’s Diary waiting for me on my table. But presently, I’m in the midst of Bill Aitken’s fascinating book called Seven Sacred Rivers. There’s no better friend than a book, is there? I learned that years ago when I fell in love with Enid Blyton’s books. I can imaging my sister writing her diary and finding time in the midst of teaching and household chores to read her favourite books. And now that the monsoon has hit Calcutta, there can’t be a better time with books and a hot, strong cup of tea. Mr Bond, perhaps, might like that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Equality for women! Where's respect for them in the first place?

A girl in her early teens leaves her village near the Sundarbans in West Bengal to seek a livelihood in the City of Joy, to earn money to educate her older brother. After being exploited initially, she finds loving people in the home of a well-to-do family. But for how long will her joy last, before she is forced to return to the Sundarbans and marry? Your guess is as good as mine.

They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I have edited the story of a woman ill-treated by her husband and forced to lead a life of her own without her children, but who recovered her poise and accepted life with equanimity. A remarkable story of courage against the odds. Luckily, she’s doing well.

Sangha and Urnila come from India’s neglected northeast. With their families left destitute, the two girls arrive in Chennai and are taken care of at the Love Care Centre. Sangha has dreams of bagging the job of an airhostess some day, while Urnila hopes to become a nurse. They persevere and work hard. How are they faring today? We hope they are doing well.  

Then, there is a poignant story of students, mostly girls, walking non-stop for two hours and more to reach their school in a remote part of Kashmir. Despite lack of some facilities, they never complain. They hardly miss a class and wish to study to become teachers and doctors and to make a place for themselves in society. A lesson for some of our city-bred children, you’d say?

Can timid, shy women gain self-confidence, learn to run a business and stand on their feet? Yes, they can.  Project Eco, established by the YRG Medical, Educational and Research Foundation, Chennai, not only encourages entrepreneurship among underprivileged women, it has turned many into respectable breadwinners. Yet another example of how women, once they are given a free hand, can excel and prove a thing or two.  

It makes for quite an unusual sight – a woman carrying passenger luggage at a railway station. But in Chhattisgarh's Raipur Station, Maanbai and Parasai do just that. While one inspired another, together they now inspire other women. Life is not easy at all, but they find happiness in what they do.

The last example possibly exemplifies the nature of women in general. They are easy to please, create little fuss, are absolutely devoted if you are faithful, will do anything for you if you show them you care, even become great lovers and teach you a thing or two… But that (showing them you care), unfortunately, seems to be hard coming. We seem to be born in a culture that despises women and takes perverse pleasure in taking every opportunity to leer and sneer at them.

Now, how in the wide world did I get into all this? Well, while my daughter was in the midst of her learning lessons with her car, I noticed drivers on the pavement and other good-for-nothings watching her very effort closely as if to say, let’s see how you do it. Even as she drives there are many who take a second or third look to see if she’s doing OK (negative vibes, you bet). All of it makes me wonder whether things might have been different in a developed world. And the strong feeling I get is: YES, it would. Also, why are we talking about 33 per cent reservation for women when it really means nothing on the ground. It's no wonder it hasn't happened as yet, and even if it were to some day, do you really think it will make any difference? Ha! And if this is indeed true of Indian cities, what about the much, much larger swathe that is rural India? Isn't it a curse being born a girl in India? Where's television and, eh, Arnab Goswami?

Monday, June 11, 2012

An Ind-Suzuki and a Fiat, faithful companions both

My first real job was in the tea estates in the Niligiris. Many of the estates even today look as if they’ve just popped out of a picture postcard. When I was there in the early 1980s I was taken around in Land Rovers and on Jawa motorcycles. There are very few bikes as macho as the Jawa, the outlines so seductive that it leaves you pining to own one. Coloured like military-fatigues, the purr and the whirr of the Jawa tempted me no end, to try a shot at learning to ride it and perhaps strike a decent deal with a second-hand bike.

But the Jawa was not for me. I was slated for a far less macho-looking India import – the Suzuki. Or rather, the Ind-Suzuki as it was called, the first of the 100 cc bikes to arrive in India. It was my brother-in-law’s and he was leaving for the Gulf, so would I put the bike to good use? It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And with what little cycling experience I had, I began my affair with a proper bike once the gleaming Ind-Suzuki arrived from Bangalore. I was also given a helmet that was military-smart.

I still remember screeching to halt at signals especially if there was a cop in sight. Some of the best moments were when I would launch into first gear and take off after a day’s work at the insurance office, right outside Harrison’s at the Anna Nagar roundabout, even as I espied a few nurses in the hospital next door grinning ear-to-ear and exchanging banter, their eyes focused on me. Or may be that was just my imagination going astray… The Ind-Suzuki behaved well, was easy to please and after a few years of use, it returned to its original home in Bangalore. It is still in the owner’s garage today, used whenever my brother-in-law visits from Dubai. And whenever I'm there, I lift up the cover and have a look at its tank, the gleam gone but the warmth still there.

When the Fiat arrived (my first car), it brought along with it quite a bit of adventure. On the evening of the first day I had taken it to work, it taught me a lesson or two. Never mistake the accelerator for the brake and if you hit something or somebody, please stop by and find out if all’s well. Below the Gemini flyover I pressed the accelerator hard and swerved as a fish-cart suddenly appeared out of nowhere. One of its wheels squealed out in pain as a few coconuts and other accoutrements toppled over. I went along pretending not to see hands trying to stop me or voices hurling abuses. As I wended my way through the traffic in T. Nagar that flush of anxiety came to the fore as I bumped into an auto-rickshaw. The driver, however, was not the kind to let me go. And so he followed me home. It all ended at a garage where I paid for the damages.

Once I was tamed, the Fiat was like a mother – always protective and friendly, despite the heat, the signals and traffic jams, and the most unpredictable drivers. When I had to finally let go of it after ten years or so, it was a sorrowful parting. Only then did I realise that you can develop close bonds with the inanimate as well.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I owe quite a bit to Sindri... and to Hari

I learnt driving pretty late, even if it meant just cycling. For years in Calcutta, I used the best means of transport – my sturdy two legs (they aren’t as sturdy now) and, of course, public transport, which more often than not meant the friendly laid-back tram. When one of my close buddies used to visit, driving a Hero Majestic moped, I used to fancy driving such a vehicle but that never happened. Much later, when I was posted in Korba, an industrial township in east Madhya Pradesh, I would fancy driving an Enfield Bullet. The development officer working in the branch would announce his arrival with the thunderous roar of his Bullet. He and his family soon became neighbours and there were a couple of occasions when I tried driving that monster. That I escaped unscathed is only part of the story.

My first lessons in riding something of import were taken on an open field in Sindri, yet another industrial township, but in Bihar, a township that reeked of old world charm and all that’s good with the world. Those were the heady days of the 1970s, a world for me that was then filled with my cousin Hari, his friend Bum (yes, we all wondered what a name!), some super-friendly neighbours, the weekly film show... Hari and Bum were older to me by a few years, the exuberance and adventure of late adolescence having overtaken them, and so they spent exhilarating moments under trees and outside kiosks puffing ever so lovingly on cigarettes and bidis. I did give them admirable (for my age, that is) company, but ensured that such early-on experience did not lead me inexorably to the world of ganja and hashish as it did both of them.   

Back to that sprawling field... I was trying my best to gain a semblance of balance on Hari’s bicycle and finally yelled out in orgasmic triumph as I managed to cycle a short distance before I fell off and hurt my leg badly. It was early morning and no passerby in sight to witness the shameful moment, so I plodded on and after a couple of heaves and pushes and surges I was able to circle the field. If there was anybody watching he would have thought what a seasoned cyclist I was! Those balancing lessons were never forgotten and although I was never too fond of the bicycle (that seat always tended to pain my crotch) I found I had indeed graduated to make an attempt with a motorcycle.

Hari is now in Palakkad; he can hardly see. He quit a paying job in Durgapur years ago and tries to make a living dabbling in the stock market. His wife has an ailment – she’s schizophrenic, and he has two children to look after. Life can take terrible turns. We do keep in touch and sometimes in those few minutes of coming together again, we wonder if life had only been a little kinder (to him) and, yes, if those good old days in Sindri could return. There’s no news about Bum, but wherever he is, let him be well. Hari’s dad, my father’s youngest brother, has died and all of us in the family have lost such a wonderful storyteller.He was the one who introduced me to the world of Sherlock Homes and Alfred Hitchcock and spun tales around almost every page of the Illustrated Weekly.

I am reminded of those lessons I learnt (by myself) in Sindri's playing fields thanks to my daughter taking to driving her car these days. Chennai’s roads are chaotic at the best of times and today I realise how it is to be a parent waiting for a child to reach office and to return home. I have gone through the grind, picking up a couple of stars on my debut… more of it soon.