Politics of an Abduction

•May 31, 2012 • Leave a Comment

– Niha Masih

On the south eastern coast of India is the state of Orissa, one of the richest in terms of natural and mineral resources but one of the most underdeveloped in a country which takes pride in its double digit growth rate. It is one of the Naxal affected states where armed guerrilla groups have rebelled against the State, which they perceive to be brutal and apathetic.

The battle between the Naxals and the State has a long and unfortunately, bloodied history. The last few months saw a spate of kidnappings by the Naxals in Orissa and Chattisgarh who set forth demands for every release. The longest hostage crisis was the abduction of a tribal MLA of Orissa’s ruling party – BJD for over a month.  As the abduction of Orissa MLA, Jhina Hikaka, hit the newsstands, debates over Naxals holding the Government to ransom broke out in TV studios. However, our on ground investigation revealed how this could actually be a sordid tale of political opportunism by local politicians and a people’s movement allegedly with Maoist links. It leads to deeper concerns about the will of the state to tackle issues of neglect of its tribal population as well as raises questions on the intent of an increasingly combative form of activism.

Even after being released, emotions run high at Jhina Hikaka’s house. In the course of our investigation we came upon a letter of demands addressed to the Orissa CM, signed by Jhina and other BJD leaders from Koraput. Almost all of the demands raised by Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh or CMAS (a tribal outfit fighting for land reclamation alleged to have Maoist backing) found a place in it, from an enquiry into the Narayanpatna Police Station firing in 2009 to speedy release of tribals and CMAS members languishing in Koraput jails.

Juro Mauka at a CMAS memorial in Tendulipadar village, allegedly broken down by the CRPF. At 23 she is one of the nearly 130 members of CMAS who got elected unopposed in the Panchayat elections in February this year. Juro held the deciding vote for the election of the President of the Zilla Parishad of Koraput district as both BJD and Congress had the same number of votes. The deal secured her crucial vote and the BJD candidate won.

One of Orissa’s most wanted men and leader of CMAS, Nachika Linga, just over 35 years of age has been at the forefront of the Adivasi land reclamation movement for the last 15 years but which has gradually been resorting to a more violent approach, leading the Police to allege that they are a front organisation for the Maoists. He met us at a secret location to contend that the BJD did not honour the deal, which is perhaps what led to the kidnapping.

The origin of this flashpoint stems from a much deep rooted neglect of the area. More than 80 % of Koraput district is under the poverty line with tribals making up 60% of the population. Over the years, tribals argue that non-tribals took over more and more of their land, driving them into bonded labour often with the help of alcohol leading to widespread resentment.

A tribal woman walking past broken down houses in the town of Podapadar. What had begun as a people’s movement for land reclamation soon adopted a more aggressive stance and violent clashes in May 2009 saw Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh members ransacking homes of the Doms (Dalits) and Sundis (engaged in liquor trade) in the town of Podapadar, ultimately displacing more than 300 families.

Life in the Narayanpatna Police Station has not been the same since November 2009. On the 20th of the month large scale violence occurred at the site which led to two deaths and many arrests of CMAS members. While the official version of the story differs vastly from the CMAS one, in 2011 one of the courts acquitted many of the implicated tribals lending credence to the CMAS version.

In Nachika Linga’s home village of Bhaliaput, the tribals proudly show us the land they forcibly took over from Kancha Parida and Bubnu (both Sundis, and OBC caste) and Chitiro Bidika (a Dalit). The seized land now belongs to the entire village. Nachika Linga used to work as a bonded labourer for Kancha Parida for a derisory Rs 60 a year.

Most Central and State schemes have a poor record in Naxal-affected areas. On one hand, the Naxals have blocked implementation of these schemes and on the other there is corruption and official apathy. Even the otherwise successful NREGA has been riddled with corruption and poor implementation in Koraput district. Last year in a damning report by an NGO, it was found that more than 60 % of the people in the state did not even get one day’s employment leading the Supreme Court to order a CBI inquiry into the scam.

Tribal women in the village of Tendulipadar. While the State’s challenge remains on the development front, its high handedness in dealing with its alienated population has only worsened things with people getting caught in the crossfire between the State and those opposing it.


Far From The Madding Crowd

•March 14, 2011 • 1 Comment

-Nadia Feroz

Imagine if you have spent 20 years of your life, sleeping, eating, laughing, and crying amidst the dead.  At one point, you resented their very presence but now find peace in their company. Imagine if the dead were closer than your own flesh and blood. This is a reality for Shekhar Kumar.  His well kept secret.

A high-caste Brahmin from Bihar, he came to Delhi to work as a security guard. To his embarrassment and horror, he was posted at the Christian Cemetery near Okhla, New Delhi. The love for his two polio-affected sons and his young bride made him swallow his pride and settle for a meagre salary of Rs 1400 per month.  He has managed to keep his profession a secret from his family.

He has no education nor skills to have another career. His days are spend chewing tobacco, preparing meals and chit-chatting with his friend Kunjum. She drops by twice a week and shares the latest event in her life, her new chocolate brown shoes, her sons wedding etc. Apart from  Kunjum, Shekhar Kumar  has his three dogs (all named ‘Sheru’) to keep him company.

It is here with the dead that his soul finds rest from the world he has been deeply hurt  by. The walls he has built around his heart are taller and stronger than the walls of the cemetery.

A New charter on life

•December 1, 2010 • 1 Comment

By Ashim Sunam

“I have been beaten several times by my rickshaw owner behind closed doors as I was not able to pay him his daily rent of 40 rupees”, says a rickshaw puller from Bihar.

The exploitative nature of these contractors is a common ailment for the rickshaw pullers. They refer to it as “aam baat”, meaning “usual affair”.They do not protest the brutality they are subjugated under. They depend on these contractors for their daily bread. Thesecontractors who rent out rickshaws do not have proper license to ply on the roads

SIFE is an International NGO which mobilizes university students in developing the community. The students discovered that 95% of the rickshaws plying on the University are rented for 40 rupees per day. Ram Shiromani a puller who migrated from Allahabad says, “Like me, most of the pullers come from far off places like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and West Bengal with the prospect of sending their hard earned savings back home”.

Hence SIFE introduced a project called “Life on Wheels” which would benefit the pullers. It helps them in acquiring loans which allows them to purchase special rickshaws provided by SIFE. Abhay Kumar, faculty advisor of SIFE says, “We have tied up with Punjab National Bank for providing loans to the pullers. SRCC stands as guarantor for them”.

Many students from North campus (Delhi University) have often witnessed these incidents, where pullers have been slapped and beaten in public. The police usually turn a naked eye. Students in Free Enterprise at Shri Ram College of commerce (SIFE SRCC) took it upon themselves to rescue these poor migrant rickshaw pullers from such humiliation and shame.

The new rickshaws that they ply now are a unique upgrade from those of yesteryear. It has many facilities for its passengers, like dust bins, water bottle stand, newspaper stand along with its soft cushioned seat. There are only 42 such rickshaws plying on University roads at north campus. It has only been introduced in the Delhi University.

Sapan looks at his new rickshaw and says, “I will finally own a rickshaw of my own”. If these pullers pay their loans of Rs 250/week on a regular basis they can call it their own within a short span of a 12 months.  All these men were granted a loan of 10,480 rupees which includes a rickshaw, Insurance, MCD licenses and2 sets of blue coloured uniform.

SIFE launched its first 5 rickshaws on December 2009 with the support and presence of Delh Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit. “It was a proud moment for us as Ms. Dikshit praised the efforts of the youth and encouraged us more.” says Radhika Goel, the former President of SIFE from SRCC in 2009. They were expected to launch a total of 75 such rickshaws before the Common wealth games, but they failed in doing so. Mahek, the president of SIFE says, “The ban on rickshaws during the commonwealth games hindered our progress”. Around 60 more rickshaws are expected to hit the roads in the next few months.

Raju who does not own a SIFE rickshaw also wants to own one. He can’t, because he does not have an Idenity card which is a must under this scheme. On the contrary, Santosh is ecstatic, as he waits for the next stock of rickshaws which are ready to be launched in the coming month. He will be one of the first among the new lot to receive it.  “This rickshaw will provide me with a particular status within the rickshaw community”, utters Santosh with a sense of pride prevailing in his voice.

Gautam regrets the previous 15 years of his life that he spent in Delhi pulling a rented rickshaw. He says “I was a slave in the hands of my master”. He rented a rickshaw everyday for 15 years and does not have any savings to show for it. He adds,” the amount of rent that I have paid to my owner (contractor) till date would have easily fetched me around 35-40 rickshaws”.

With a firm grip on his new black rickshaw he takes his passenger and offers a newspaper to read for his short journey.

From Drugs to Rock n Roll

•December 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By Furquan A Siddiqui


“I liked my first high, the best high that I never felt or experienced ever,” recalls Danny, a middle aged drummer from a band named ‘Sahara’, remembering his first experimentation with drugs.

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that majority of the HIV/AIDS infection in youth is the consequence of drug abuse through the reuse of medical syringes. In India, primarily in metros and North-eastern regions, drug use is the major cause of the magnitude of this epidemic.

Freddy Valtea a resident of Mizoram started using the substance at 14. “I had tried quitting like 7-8 times before I ended up here. I even tried switching to different substances, but it didn’t work. Heroin addiction is so tough to get over.”

According to United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) report, there are about one million registered heroin addicts in India, and unofficially the number is estimated to be five million.

The number of rehabilitation centres in India for people suffering from HIV is very few. Realising the situation after being unable to find such a centre for his brother, Neville Selhore started Sahara Care Centre.

“In India, it’s more about the moral being of a person that is at scrutiny. People believe that if you have HIV you have done something ‘naughty’. But that isn’t the case most of the time,” offers Urvashi Gandhi, Manager Education & Training, Breakthrough, a human rights organization.

India has the third largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS. According to an estimate by NACO 2.27 million people are infected.

67 year old Joe, who has given up drugs, is a vocalist. He has recorded with Sony many times. He says, “I lost many years of my life to heroin. Although now I’m quite successful, I regret losing everything.”

Miracle Train: Fighting HIV/AIDS Across the Nation

•November 30, 2010 • 2 Comments

By Samir Alam

Mohan (name changed) lines up at the testing and counselling bogey of the Red Ribbon Express and awaits his turn. A truck driver by profession he is used to travelling across Punjab and Haryana most of the year but today he has come with a few friends to get tested for HIV/AIDS.  He doesn’t think he is sick but a friend of his suggested that he should be checked. After all being on the road has its risks.

Taking to a sadhuji and an auto-wallah about what the test is like, his fears about the procedure are calmed when one of the men in the line tells him all it takes is a little pinch of a needle. Mohan says he isn’t afraid of needles but wonders how he can know if there is a chance he might be sick. Taken into the counselling berths of the train one of the doctors explains how HIV/AIDS is contracted and asks Mohan about his risk behaviours.

Mohan seems relieved. After all he says he always uses a condom and doesn’t do any drugs. He hesitates in consenting for the blood test. But after a little encouragement from his friends he obliges. The doctor tells him it will take about half an hour. He should come back later. He exits the train and takes a seat near the platform.

He isn’t going anywhere.

Half an hour later he is back in the bogey asking for his results. There is a faint mist of sweat on his brow in the December sun but it isn’t because of the heat. After a little checking he is handed his results. He puts it in his pocket and walks away from the crowd. When asked if he is going to see it, he says, “I will. But not here. I’ll see it at home.”  Seconds later he opens the note and smiles.

Mohan is one of the fortunate few who can take safer steps in the future to protect himself from HIV/AIDS but the 2.3 million people infected in India are not so lucky.

The Red Ribbon Express is in many ways nothing short of a cure in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Although not a commercial passenger train, it is more importantly a carrier of hope in its mission for AIDS awareness. Inaugurated on World AIDS Day 2007 this train’s mission has been to spread the awareness about AIDS and HIV all across the country.

“We’ve covered 22 states in the past year,” says Dhirendren, a counsellor aboard the train, “We’ve hosted over 8 million people, tested nearly 39,000 people and counselled nearly 60,000 more.”

In India, which laments the third largest population of HIV/AIDS victims globally, the initiative to employ the largest civil transport system to combat this disease has been a victory. And after having covered a distance of over 22,000 km and reaching over 8 million people it took a halt at New Delhi’s Safdurjung Railway Station from 29th November to 1st December.

“Along the way we have expanded our mandate,” says Dr. Raj Upadhyaya of the National AIDS Control Organisation, “Other than HIV/AIDS we also provide information and assistance to malaria, tuberculosis and swine-flu.”

Having tested over 3.5 million people across the country over the last year the Red Ribbon Express welcomed visitors in Delhi and also provided counselling and testing to Delhities. Since its arrival, troves of NGOs and other civil organizations have come to Sufdurjung to see the train and gain valuable information.

Although most of the visitors brought by the NGOs are “at-risk” groups such as migrant labourers and member of the transgender community, it is no longer surprising to find the regular middle class taking advantage of this opportunity.

“Its no longer a taboo to be tested,” says Susheel Kumar, an officer at Safdurjung station as he prepares to be tested, “The disease can spread through more ways than just sex. Its more responsible to be tested.” Regardless of certain changed attitudes in a city like Delhi the doctors, nurses and technicians aboard the Red Ribbon Express have encountered obstacles in rural India.

Kalim Ashraf works as a lab technician, taking and testing blood samples of patients who wish to be tested. However he finds that clarifying people’s doubts about the disease is the harder task. When not working in the lab, he takes the time to observe how many of the people who come to the train are always wary not to get too close.

“When we first arrive, there are NGO groups and school children ready to see what we do and take our help,” he says, “but its the people who don’t know anything about the disease that are really in need of help.” In order to break the fearful silence, the Red Ribbon crew in conjunction with State support and local groups, performs skits and street plays in the cities they halt at to explain and demonstrate the risks and precaution with regards to HIV/AIDS.

The main goal for the crew of this train lies not in just treating the disease but also in healing the mind of the community. By following a strict code of ethics they protect the confidentiality of their patients and provide them with the best care possible.

And despite the test only taking at most a couple of hours to be finished, they realize that the results, positive or negative, are only the beginning of a long journey aimed at changing the attitudes of the community.

Le Parkour in India

•November 29, 2010 • 1 Comment

By Furquan A Siddiqui

Portraits: CommonWealth Games Workers

•November 29, 2010 • 1 Comment

By Furquan A Siddiqui

Huge sporting events like Commonwealth Games are accompanied by massive developments around the city. The idea behind the theme was to focus on workers and daily wagers who made this mega event successful.

The photographs are taken in and around the Connaught Place in New Delhi.