Nepal Quake Underscores the Need for Updated Resource Inventory

An incomplete and non-updated resources inventory from almost 25 states on IDRN can undo the meagre preparedness and prove hindrance in the daunting relief and rehabilitation work in case of natural disaster in India

A devastated house  in Srinagar stands in dilapidated condition six months after it remained underwater for over a month in September 2014 Kashmir floods.
A devastated house in Srinagar stands in dilapidated condition six months after it remained underwater for over a month in September 2014 Kashmir floods.


“All they needed was a long enough rope to divert the falling tree to the desired spot. But no one knew where they could find a rope or a strong wire,” Dr G M Dar from the Disaster Management Centre at Srinagar, recently narrated a telling incident from the devastating Kashmir floods of 2014.

A weakened embankment of a spring on Srinagar outskirts would have breached if the water flew over it. The local administration wanted a nearby tree to be felled to divert the strong current of water so that sandbags could be piled on to strengthen the embankment to save the area from flooding. A rope holding that tree to nearby trees would have meant a directed fall at the desired spot. That was not to be.

That’s why resource inventory is a must at all levels right up to districts and even block level, Dar, a faculty at the Disaster Management Centre of the J&K Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development, said. The inventory has a range of equipment and availability of trained manpower.

Apart from the loss of lives (150 plus), there was an estimated loss of over Rs 5,000 crore due to J&K floods, a PTI report had quoted ASSOCHAM. ( Uttarakhand in 2013 had similarly witnessed huge loss of life and damage to property arising out of a natural disaster and still paying the price with severely decreased tourism/pilgrimage.
The Nepal earthquake last month should come as a rude reminder for India. Rampant unauthorized construction across cities has made Indian urban centres such as Delhi and Mumbai most vulnerable to natural disasters such as quake or floods. Much has been written about what would have happened if a 7.9 magnitude on Richter scale quake hit Delhi and how the national capital will be flattened in absence of any structural stability measures etc. But it is not just the immediate natural disaster that kills or injures people. Much also depends on how fast or slow is the response of the authorities. The reason: Mismanagement of resources and manpower that further leads to huge loss of life and property.

When will India learn lesson?

Even as the term disaster management is gaining currency year on year, it has not percolated to the lower most rung, usually the first responders in case of a natural calamity. Kashmir floods 2014 or Uttarkhand 2013 should have been lessons well learnt. But a local engineer of the flood and irrigation department or for that matter a hospital’s medical superintendent remains unaware about the availability of resources that can prove valuable at the time of providing relief and rescue.

Way back in 2004, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had initiated a web-based platform, the India Disaster Resource Network (IDRN,, which is basically an online inventory of resources, both men and material, that is hoped to be useful in times of emergencies.

A quick glance through the inventory – state-wise, district wise, neatly segregated region wise AND available to public free of cost – tells us, you have fibre boats, wooden boats; you have fire-fighting teams for high rise buildings or a nuclear plant; you have JCB machines and you have ambulances; bolt cutters or cold cutters; you have radiologists and you have a Ham radio operator. You name it and the list has it.

And it is here that the legendary Indian babudom has failed to meet the expectations. Data that needs to be updated for each district has not been updated for scores of states and Union Territories. Forget remote districts, even the national capital Delhi does not fare any better.

Following table makes it clear how Delhi, the seat of power, has not done poorly. For instance, Central Delhi district has not bothered to update data since August 2005; North Delhi has not done it after June 2008 etc. But the most important is the fact that Shahdara and South-East Delhi districts – both relatively newer districts – have no data whatsoever. Unfortunately, these are the two district on either side of the Yamuna, with dense population, most of it unauthorized colonies, and the area is hugely prone to flooding.


District             Data last updated

Central                          Aug-05
East Delhi                    Feb-15
New Delhi                   Nov-14
North                            Jun-08
North East                 Mar-15
North West               Apr-06
South delhi                Feb-15
South West               Jan-15
West                            Jan-15
Shahdara           Data Not Available
South East        Data Not Available
(Source: IDRN)

Mumbai, the financial capital that has once suffered massive loss of life, property and trade after 26/7 (2005) has no record updated after December 2008. Andaman and Nicobar Islands that had witnessed the terrible Tsunami (2004), has not updated the list of inventory since 2003.

But then, according to Anupama Sethi, administrator with the IDRN, “There are honourable exception. Most districts of Orissa, often ravaged by deadly cyclones, have updated inventory till February or March 2015. Other states with updated inventories for almost all districts are Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Punjab and Kerala.”

Awareness is the key

Main problem is lack of awareness. Although IDRN is monitored and maintained by the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM), the data collection and updating it is essentially done at the district level. But many at the district level – for instance the district collector – are not even aware. That is where Sethi and her team chips in with training for different states.

But surely, something somewhere is lacking. A review meeting in September 2014 of the IDRN received valuable suggestion from across stakeholders. For instance, infrastructure data such as locations of schools, hospitals or even the community bhawans need to be added to the inventory. Orissa has done a wonderful job of creating stilted shelters for people evacuated from flood prone areas.

The IDRN data is available only in English right now. But for a diverse country such as India, obviously the need is to have the same data in all regional languages. Also, the data is accessible only online right now, there is an immediate need of making provisions for off-line availability too. After the Ladakh cloudburst in 2010, the entire BSNL network had collapsed and there would have been no way to access the ‘online’ resource inventory.

Keeping in tune with the increasing penetration of smart phones across stratas, using social media such as Twitter and Facebook for information dissemination can prove timely and necessary for generating awareness too. India surely cannot afford repeats of Uttarakhand 2013 or J&K floods 2014 when resources were indeed available with the respective states but the authorities concerned, the first responders, had no information about the availability of such resources, which delayed the response. The key is awareness, knowledge.

This was released on the PTI Feature service, a mailer service, on May 9, 2015 and reproduced by The Asia Digest on May 16, 2015. It can be read here

‘Manual scavenging-free India’ still a distant dream

Is the government really serious about rehabilitation of manual scavengers?

New Delhi: It is centuries old, most inhuman of the practices. And unfortunately, despite the rule of law, it is rampant in large pockets, including in the national capital of Delhi, across India.

Manual scavenging – what the Centre even failed to acknowledge exists till the Census 2011 figures held an unhappy mirror – continues unabated more than a year after the ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013’, which came into force in February 2014.

Manual scavenging practice from a village in Uttar Pradesh (Photo Credit: Safai Karmchari Andolan)

And circa 2015, the government is still not sure how many persons – almost all of them from lower and lowest of the lower caste – are engaged in this insensitive blot of a profession. While public in general are least bothered, the government is indifferent. Activist in this field are having a harrowing time even convincing the government to do surveys and rehabilitate manual scavengers. Allotment of funds, non-implementation of schemes and most important, lack of punitive measures for non-compliance have simply left much to be desired.

Government data claims there are only 12,753 manual scavengers

Manual scavenging practice in Bihar (Photo Credit: Safai Karmchari Andolan)

According to the information provided by Vijay Sampla, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment in the Rajya Sabha last week, manual scavengers are found in 13 states. The minister provided a table of state-wise data – contested by activists – which claimed there are 12,753 manual scavengers in India and over 10,000 of them in Uttar Pradesh alone.

The state/UT data as per the latest information available on the basis of survey undertaken in the States/UTs from 13 states is as follows:


State Urban Rural Total 12753
33 Uttar Pradesh 2404 7612 10016 78.54%
30 Tamil Nadu” 979 NA 979 7.68%
25 Odisha 386 0 386 3.03%
16 Karnataka 302 0 302 2.37%
28 Rajasthan* 284 NA 284 2.23%
19 Maharashtra* 139 NA 139 1.09%
5 Bihar 137 NA 137 1.07%
34 Uttarakhand 137 NA 137 1.07%
14 Jammu & Kashmir 119 NA 119 0.93%
35 West Bengal 98 NA 98 0.77%
2 Andhra Pradesh 89 NA 89 0.70%
27 Punjab 64 NA 64 0.50%
7 Chhattisgarh 3 0 3 0.02%
1 Andaman & Nicobar Islands 0 NA 0
3 Arunachal Pradesh 0 NA 0
4 Assam NA NA 0
6 Chandigarh 0 0 0
8 Dadara & Nagar Haveli 0 0 0
9 Daman & Diu 0 NA 0
10 Goa 0 NA 0
11 Gujarat 0 NA 0
12 Haryana 0 NA 0
13 Himanchal Pradesh NA NA 0
15 Jharkhand NA NA 0
17 Kerala 0 NA 0
18 Madhya Pradesh NA NA 0
20 Manipur 0 NA 0
21 Meghalaya 0 NA 0
22 Mizoram 0 NA 0
23 Nagaland NA NA 0
24 NCT of Delhi 0 0 0
26 Puducherry 0 NA 0
29 Sikkim 0 NA 0
31 Telangana 0 NA 0
32 Tripura 0 NA 0

A quick look at the table tells even a lay person how faulty and incomplete this data is. Uttar Pradesh has been candid to return a figure of 10,000 plus – although there are more persons involved, activists say – but other large states have either not given any data, resulting in NA, as in case of Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, or simply given nominal figures. For instance, West Bengal has 98 and Punjab has just 64 manual scavengers. More about other states later.

It’s no rocket science to understand that the sole cause for continued practice of manual scavenging is the existence of insanitary latrines. So, ideally, the task at hand should be to identify those places, people involved and rehabilitate them into other livelihoods. However, it is better said than done.

The government – smug after passing the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 – is sitting on surveys, reports and requests by NGOs and activists working in the field that have provided documentary evidences about the ongoing practices.

For instance, as per the section 5 of the MS Act, 2013, construction of insanitary latrines and engaging of manual scavengers from the date of commencement of the Act i.e. February 6, 2014, is prohibited. The Act also provides for identification of insanitary latrines and their demolition/ conversion into sanitary latrines on a time bound basis.

“But our experience is otherwise. We have submitted number of reports, photo/video documentary evidences, taken officials from the Ministry to the field, but to no avail. The government does not even want to recognise such things exist,” said Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of Safai Karmchari Andolan.

As per the 2013 Act, the municipalities, Cantonment Boards and Indian Railways authorities have been mandated to construct adequate number of community sanitary latrines within a period of three years from the date of commencement of the Act to eliminate the practice of open defecation. And when that happens, automatically the persons working would be rendered unemployed. (Hence), the Act also provides for identification and rehabilitation of the existing manual scavengers.

So far so good. Albeit, as it turns out, all such good things remain only on paper.

Manual scavenging practice from a village in Madhya Pradesh (Photo credit: Safai Karmachari Andolan)

The rehabilitation will happen only when the manual scavengers are identified. Going back to the table above, if we are to believe the government, there are only about 12,753 manual scavengers in India. Only one state – Uttar Pradesh – came forward with a figure of 10,000, if not 100 % accurate but towards reality while the rest of the states either did not conduct the survey or did not do it properly.

For instance, bigger states such as Andhra Pradesh has just 89 persons as manual scavengers while Tamil Nadu has 979, Karnataka has 302, Jammu & Kashmir 119 and Maharashtra 139.

Who would believe that?

Women walking as part of the Maila Mukti Yatra (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

Women manual scavengers demanding a total ban on the inhuman practice walked to Delhi as part of the Maila Mukti Yatra (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

It was in 2010 when women across the country – who had carried out a Maila Mukti Yatra under the banner of Samajik Parivartan Yatra – had met the then Union Social Justice Minister Mukul Wasnik when the government had audaciously declared there was no manual scavenging remaining in India. As a result of this pressure, the government appointed four committees/task forces in January 2011 to enumerate actual number of people involved in manual scavenging. Things did not move as desired and the government remained reluctant, mostly in denial mode. Then, the Census 2011 data released in 2012 nailed the government lie. The activists had then insisted that the survey should be a joint survey – government official and activists/NGOs together – as no one had any confidence in any of the government machinery.

The ‘House Listing and Housing Census, 2011’ data released by the Registrar General of India in March 2012 provided number of households – more than 25 lakh – by type of latrine facility, including latrines from which night soil is manually removed. It clearly showed that such latrines existed in all states/UTs except in Goa, Sikkim and the UTs of Chandigarh and Lakshadweep.

So, reluctantly the states agreed for the survey. While few started in right earnest, others dragged their feet, more in the denial mode and less due to their capacity to do. The reasons for non-compliance were varied.

Delhi, the national capital territory of Delhi – right under the nose of the Central government – is a classic example of how the babudom finds excuses. For all the months that no work was done for carrying out the survey, Raju Sharsar, the chairman of the Delhi Commission for Safai Karmcharis (DCSK) blames the President’s Rule in Delhi during last one year. “We are still carrying out the survey. There was literally no work going on during last one year due to President’s Rule. (Now) We are hopeful that it will be completed in 60 days,” Sharsar said.

And what about rehabilitation of people who have already been identified? “Sorry, no work has started for rehabilitation,” was Sharsar’s candid reply.

Just how far away from the reality the state governments are is exposed by Ashif Sheikh of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan (National Campaign for Dignity). “Census 2011 threw up a figure of 27 lakh dry toilets across India. Even (then Minister) Jairam Ramesh agreed to conduct a survey in census towns. (But) states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh straightaway disagreed and claimed the Census data was wrong,” Sheikh said, adding, “After much persuasion, some states agreed for survey at the district-level. Some of them are not agreeing to it even on paper, forget on ground.”

Ashif Sheikh of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan during the Delhi meeting after Maila Mukti Yatra. The meeting was attended among others by then union minister Jairam Ramesh) (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

He also pointed out how whatever is being done under the name of ‘survey’ is hogwash. “The ongoing survey is being conducted only at the Census towns. It cannot be termed as state-wide data as no survey is happening across remaining areas of the states. Moreover, the definition (of a scavenger) under the 2013 Act has been widened to include anybody who is doing manual cleaning. It includes sewer workers manually cleaning septic tanks, sewer/manholes, it includes those safai karmcharis employed by Indian Railways to clean railway tracks/platforms manually etc. Whatever surveys are being done, are considering only the traditional form of manual scavenging.”

The survey in rural areas is to be done by the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC), which will throw up yet another set of figures and put rest to unusual figures presented by the government in the Parliament, activists believe. But that too has not started yet.

No survey, budget lapses

The first year – 2011 – the government had allotted Rs 65 crore for the survey. March 2012, the government said, it could not spend the money. “Next year, the budget was revised to Rs 10 crore, same was the reply in April 2012. Again in March 2013, nothing,” Wilson pointed out.

A look at the data on the Ministry of Social Justice is testimony to the apprehension of the activists. Under what the government calls as the ‘Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), introduced in 2007 with an aim to rehabilitate “remaining” manual scavengers and their dependents in a “time-bound” manner, the budgetary spend was as follows:

(Rs. in crore)
Year B.E. R.E. Expenditure
2006-07 1.00 56.00 56.00
2007-08 50.00 50.00 25.00
2008-09 100.00 100.00 100.00
2009-10 100.00 100.00 50.00
2010-11 5.00 5.00 Nil
2011-12 100.00 100.00 Nil
2012-13 100.00 100.00 20.00
2013-14 570.00 70.00 35.00
2014-15 448.00 Nil (Till 15th January, 2015)


As per the buget for 2015-16, the government has earmarked Rs 460 crore for the SRMS despite the fact that data from years 2011-12 onwards showed a declining trend in expenditure.

According to the government’s revised scheme, those identified as manual scavengers – and ironically, only one from each family – are provided one-time cash assistance. “The identified manual scavengers and their dependents are provided project based back-ended capital subsidy up to Rs 3,25,000 and concessional loan for undertaking self-employment for a period of up to two years, during which a stipend of Rs 3,000 per month is also provided,” reads the government scheme document.

But as with other government claims, activists punched holes in this claim too. Sheikh claimed, “Rs 280 crore has been spent till date on 3.4 lakh beneficiaries, the government claims. But if we see the number of people who are actually rehabilitated, it is far lower – just 81,000 till date.”

Wilson said his organisation estimated there are close to three lakh people directly involved in manual scavenging as per the traditional/conventional manner and the numbers are likely to increase exponentially as and when those defined as scavengers under the new definition are included.

The only good thing – if at all it can be termed as one – is the government admission in the same Parliament reply: “Existence of manually serviced latrines in the States/UTs points to the fact that the practice of manual scavenging is yet to be fully eliminated.”

Okey, so what do you plan to do, dear government?

But this semblance of an assurance does not seem to ensure that further implementation is set to be any better.

Explaining the unused funds at the end of each fiscal, V K Parwanda, deputy general manager of the National Safai Karmcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), said, “The survey started late and is further delayed. (So) we are late in disbursing one-time assistance for the beneficiaries. We are now asking for comprehensive proposals (for another round of survey) from states for a fresh realistic assessment.”

The Ministry of Social Justice did hold a meeting on March 18 wherein the Centre asked all the states again to complete the survey as early as possible. Parwanda assured that the government was keen on rehabilitating each and every manual scavenger and claimed, it had started publicity till village level for identifying such persons, preventing them to continue such work and rehabilitate them. The ministry has claimed to have put in place a helpline for the purpose.

Will that work? Does that show commitment enough? As per Section 21 of the 2013 Act, Executive Magistrates, who have been conferred judicial powers of first class, are empowered to try any offences committed under the Act.

Fair enough. But government has no data whatsoever if any action has ever been taken under this section.

Women manual scavengers during the Delhi meeting as part of the Maila Mukti Yatra (Photo credit: Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan)

But the problem is not even that. It is not to do with what offence anyone commits under the Act, but more to do with the lack of action – rather lack of interest – by the government authorities in doing what they are supposed to do. Wilson pinpointed the problem: “Unfortunately, there is no punishment in the Act for non-performance by government officials not keen on doing what they are supposed to do!”

This write up was first published by on April 4, 2015 and it can be read here

The Himalayan waters: complex challenges and regional solutions

Tibetan Part of the Koshi Basin (Pic by Santosh Nepal)



Santosh Nepal and Arun Bhakta Shrestha, ICIMOD

It is difficult to think of a resource more essential to the well being of people and their economies than water, yet managing water resources is a complex and challenging task. The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region heavily depends on water resources for irrigation, food, hydropower, sanitation, and industry, as well as for the functioning of many important ecosystem services. Water thus directly contributes to the national GDP and to livelihoods and income generation at the local level. Although water is the foundation of sustainable development, water management in the HKH region remains fragmented and uncoordinated, and does not take relevant regional issues into account.

Many big rivers like the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra originate from the snow and glacier covered high mountains, and have abundant seasonal and annual water supply. Despite this, mountain people living on the ridges and hill slopes have limited access to water for drinking and agriculture. Throughout the mountain region, springs are reported to be drying, and mountain agriculture has suffered from drought. The shortage of water has placed an increasing burden on mountain communities, particularly on women. Furthermore, the communities face loss of property and lives due to water-induced natural hazards. Climate change has exacerbated the situation by creating uncertainty about the future water availability and water security. Understanding the characteristics of water is crucial for sustainable water management. This article attempts to highlight some of the complexities and challenges of water management in the HKH region and discusses a possible way out for sustainable management.

Water and energy

Energy is one of the most important pillars of sustainable development. In the HKH region, hydropower is one of the most promising environmentally friendly sources of energy. With a potential estimated to be 500,000 MW, the region has abundant opportunities for hydropower development. Energy security can open up opportunities for development and employment and contribute to the national GDP. Moreover, innovative solutions such as electric transportation and a clean source of domestic and industrial energy supply would significantly improve the deteriorating environmental condition of the region. However, many countries in the region have been able to tap only a small fraction of their available potential. Out of the 42,000 MW potential reported in Nepal, only about 2% is harnessed so far, whereas Pakistan has harnessed 11% of its total potential. Still, people in both these countries face many hours of scheduled power cuts.

Water and the environment

Water plays a vital role in maintaining different ecosystem services in riparian areas. Freshwater ecosystems in particular largely depend on the specific flow regime of rivers passing through them. However, due to intervention of infrastructure development, the flow regime changes in the downstream areas, where, in many cases, communities depend on water resources for livelihoods such as fishing. A major concern is how to make sure that a certain minimum flow is maintained so as to sustain freshwater supply and support dependent ecosystems. There is very weak monitoring of the minimum flow requirement in the region.

Water for food

Water and food share a strong nexus, both being essential ingredients for human survival and development. Agriculture is a major contributor to the GDP of countries in the HKH. In Nepal, it contributes to 35% of the national GDP. The Indus River system is a source of irrigation for about 144,900 hectares of land, whereas the Ganges basin provides irrigation for 156,300 hectares of agricultural land. Access to water resources for food production and their sustainable management is a concern from the local to national level. Amid rapid environmental and socioeconomic changes, the growing population will require more water and food, and equitable access to vital resources has become a major question. Sustainable solutions to these problems require efficient use of water resources for agricultural use in which technological innovation plays a vital role.

Water and disaster

Due to its physical setting, the HKH region is prone to various water-induced hazards (e.g., landslides, floods, glacial lake outburst floods, and droughts). Every year, during the monsoon season, the floods bring havoc to the mountains and the plains downstream. These floods are often transboundary. Globally, 10% of all floods are transboundary, and they cause over 30% of all flood casualties and account for close to 60% of all those displaced by floods. The social and economic setting of the region makes its people more vulnerable to natural hazards. Lack of supportive policy and governance mechanisms at the local, national and regional levels, and the lack of carefully planned structural and non-structural measures of mitigation lead to increased vulnerability.

Regional cooperation in sustainable development of water resources

The examples above show that water has both beneficial and adverse traits, its management is complex, and often a regional approach is necessary. The hydropower potentials are primarily concentrated in the mountain regions have but the major users of the energy are the urban areas and industries in the plains. Strong technical and political barriers separate those regions, which is one of the major reasons of slow progress in hydropower development. However, recent trends have shown some positive change. In the recent 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu, the SAARC member countries signed a Framework Agreement on Energy Cooperation. This agreement has opened up the energy market in South Asia, and thereby possibilities for cooperation in the energy sector. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the collaboration would play a role in energy security.

There are strong indications the HKH region is going to be warmer in the coming years. Precipitation is likely to increase in different places and have more inter-annual and intra-annual variability. What does the change in temperature and precipitation mean to water availability in the HKH region? What complexities do the cryosphere dynamics add to this equation? Should these changes be of concern to water resources development in the region? These questions cannot be answered without concerted efforts of the regional countries.

The regional nature of the natural hazards requires a regional approach to the solution. Effective flood management requires sharing data and information between the upstream and downstream areas, not only within the country, but also at the transboundary level. Technological innovations based on satellite information, in combination with ground-based data, can be transformed into information that can prove vital in saving lives and properties. For example, the Koshi Flood Outlook ( being developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and its national partners in Nepal and India has high potential for saving lives and properties in the basin. Such efforts should be promoted widely in the region. During the Jure landslide event of August 2014 in Nepal, during which the Sun Koshi River was blocked for several days, a great concern emerged from the Indian side regarding the status of the landslide and the likelihood of an outburst flood. The flood outlook was helpful in providing important information. This example shows that disaster risk reduction could be an entry point for immediate regional cooperation. This will create trust, which can be a basis for future cooperation for maximizing benefits such as energy trade. Countries of the HKH region should recognize the potential of water resources for sustainable development. These resources can help reduce poverty, improve livelihoods, conserve ecosystems and contribute to flood and drought management in the region. This will not only help us face the present crisis, but also open up avenues to deal with issues of future water availability amid climate and socioeconomic changes. Regional cooperation should be based on the three pillars of sustainability: economic vitality, environmental integrity and social equity, both at the national and local level.

This is a special feature article prepared by ICIMOD to mark the World Water day 2015 today, March 22, 2015

(Nepal ( is Water Resource Specialist and Shrestha ( is Programme Manager for the River Basins and Cryosphere and Atmosphere Regional Programmes at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Has the Narendra Modi government really clammed up?

Did reporting government just get harder under the NDA? No access to cabinet notes, no leaky babudom, beat ministers not talking, lobbyists banished from corridors of power. In a HOOT special, NIVEDITA KHANDEKAR talked to 50 journalists to probe the change.

(Pix: South Block, which houses the PMO, from

(Maxi post)

While others worry about the ease of doing business, The Hoot worries about the ease of reporting on the Modi government’s performance.  We present a survey in which working journalists talk about coping with more restricted access to ministers and bureaucrats in the central government.

Within days of the Narendra Modi government being sworn in 10 months ago, journalists  had started cribbing about how ‘nobody is talking, yaar’ and how the PM was keeping the media at bay.
By last August — when Modi had already dumped the usual media contingent to take  only select journalists from state-owned DD and a news agency when he went to Japan — the political-toon ‘So Sorry’ of Headlines Today/Aaj Tak group even came up with a cartoon film showing how Modi had been increasing his distance from the media on the basis of ‘No news is good news’.
By September, Modi had still not held a press conference but, as he did during his Lok Sabha campaign, chose to engage with people directly through social media, mainly through his Facebook page and Twitter handles, unceremoniously bypassing the mainstream media.
This prompted top editors to ask Modi to “enlarge access and engage more actively” with journalists. The Editors Guild of India said, a “top-down, one-way interaction in a country with limited internet connectivity and technological awareness cannot be the only answer for large masses of readers, viewers, surfers and listeners. Debate, dialogue and discussion are essential ingredients of a democratic discourse.”
Getting quotes difficult but not impossible
This survey is an endeavor to find out if what top editors called a “top down approach” or a “one-way street” continues and if the picture is really as bleak as is being painted? I spoke to 50 print media journalists covering the central government, its different ministries and departments, all based in Delhi. (See list of newspapers towards the end). Most respondents were interviewed in December 2014 and January 2015 with very few in February 2015.
The outcome is reassuring. In the sense that even when they admitted there was a “conscious effort to block information”, a majority of the journalists said, “it is difficult yet not impossible to dig out information or that precious quote from the minister/officer concerned.” They criticised the kind of stories that are being written, with many of them dismissing these stories as low-hanging fruit.
Shemin Joy, a journalist with the Deccan Herald, said: “There is a fear among officers about revealing even that information which is not negative in media parlance. Sources also have reservations about giving inputs to friendly journalists. The Modi government has clearly sent out a message that they are not keen on entertaining the media. But at the same time, journalists also should share the blame. Reporters, including myself, should think whether we are putting in that extra effort, taking the extra two steps to get the news.”
Fifty journalists answered six questions:
1. What is the difference that you have noticed about people/officers talking freely pre-Modi and post-Modi?
• Thirteen (26%) said officials, secretaries, joint secretaries, directors etc were still talking.
• Twenty said, they were “talking but with difficulty” (40%)
• Seventeen said they were “not talking at all” (34%).
• In other words, 74 per cent had sensed a clamming up.
2. Is your beat minister talking as freely as the earlier one?
• Eighteen (36%) said beat ministers were “talking”;
• Sixteen (32%) said “talking but with difficulties”;
• Another sixteen (32%) said “not talking at all”.
• So 64 per cent reported that beat ministers were talking less freely or not at all.
3. Is your beat minister talking ‘off the record’?
• Sixteen (32%) said beat ministers talked “off the record”;
• Fifteen (30%)said they “talked but with great difficulties”;
• And most of them, 19, (38%) said they “didn’t talk, even off the record”.
• Again, the majority, 68 per cent, felt the beat minister had dried up substantially as a source.
4. Are your sources talking as freely as earlier?
• Seventeen (34%) said their sources “were talking as freely as earlier”;
• Twenty-three (46%) said, sources did talk but “but with lot of cajoling, coaxing etc.”
• Only 10 (20%) said their sources had “dried up, not talking at all.”
• Combining the last two, a worrying 66 per cent journalistssaid their sources were not opening up easily, or not opening up at all.
5. (Then) how are you doing stories these days?
Or, on how they were managing to write stories nonetheless:
• Almost half — 23 (46%) — said, “Stories ho kahan rahee hai aaj-kal?”  (where are the stories?) It is mostly pro-Modi or pro-government stories”.
• Rest — 27 (54%) — said they were tapping not just their sources, but also various other options such as other stakeholders, information available on the websites etc.
6. Is there any way in which this lot is an improvement over the last one?
We as journalists observe a given government as an establishment, irrespective of the party in power. This question was to find out, as a government, how this lot fared.
• Sixteen (32%) respondents said, they noticed “visible changes” in the manner in which officials worked/were present etc;
• Fifteen (30%) said, “there was no change at all”
• Nineteen (19%) either did not say anything or said, “It is too early to judge”.
So what are the changes that journalists have felt? 
The first and the foremost: Cabinet notes are not available. Earlier it was a free-for-all. Neither cabinet meeting agendas nor inter-ministerial exchanges are coming out, not before and not after the cabinet meetings, except what the government wants to come out.
One example is the decision to shut down the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog. “RTI queries revealed later that this decision was cleared by the cabinet two days before – August 13 – but it took the Prime Minister to announce it on Independence Day from the ramparts of the Red Fort. None of us could bring that out before,” said a journalist who regularly uses RTI for big-ticket stories.
When it came to officials talking – secretaries, joint secretaries, directors et al, in short the entire leaky babudom – there is a visible fear psychosis. Generally, there is an increased level of awareness, people are careful not to speak on phone and if they speak at all, prefer landlines to mobiles phones.
When journalists do manage to get people to talk, they get plenty of information but nothing worthwhile. For instance, there is a lot of talk about ‘Smart Cities’ but so far, the government has not produced a concept note.
“The whole government seems to be PMO driven. There aren’t many internal differences between the government’s arms,” observed one senior reporter from a mainstream newspaper.
Varghese George, the Hindu‘s National Affairs and Political Editor, said: “This government appears more determined, purposeful (compared with UPA). It is also taking swift decisions. But certain things are bound to come out. And they should.”
He elaborates with an example about the Land Acquisition ordinance. Around December end, contrarian voices started coming out from within the government. Stories about the various clauses that were deemed problematic were carried by several media organisations, including The Hindu, showing finally how differing voices are coming out from within the government and of course other stake holders.
“There are multiple pressure points, lots of stake holders will try to influence decision making and there is generally bound to be chaos, but this same process ensures that these voices are heard. But in the absence of inadequate internal debate, it is happening at the cost of the democratic process,” he said.
The pink papers are the most affected. Earlier, there used to be reams of paper landing on their desks. Corporate lobbyists and big company officials could all be found loitering in the ministries. “The new government has ensured no entry to any such persons, there is a severe crunch of paper flow,” said a journalist from one of the business papers. (See postscript.)
Those covering political beats and different ministries relied heavily on ‘favouring someone’ ministers or ‘dial-a-quote’ officials. “Now this celebrity access journalism has stopped. If you are a practitioner of good old style journalism, you still get information,” said an award-winning journalist from a mainstream newspaper.
Pankaj Vohra, Managing Editor, the Sunday Guardian, said: “The job of a journalist is to get information, not to blame the government for his inefficiency. If you can’t find (information) you are not worth your salt.”
The innovative use of social media has seen news breaking first on Modi’s Twitter handle rather than through a PIB release or a journalist. The best example was when US President Barack Obama was to visit Delhi as chief guest at the Republic Day parade. “Earlier this kind of news could easily have been ‘handed out’ to some celebrity journalist and it would have been her exclusive. Now, by tweeting about it, Modi has sought to bring in democratization of news,” said a journalist from an English daily.
“Those journalists were entrenched, they had access and so had exclusive information. Now, there is democratization of news, so they are cribbing,” he added.
Nirendra Dev, Special Correspondent with the Statesman, said: “Media persons had a certain comfort zone. Those who had turned into armchair journalists are unhappy. Stories are not being done on the information that the government wants to hide.”
In fact, this ‘entrenched’ journalist phenomenon also has another side to it as one prolific journalist pointed out: “There is so much information in the public domain. Parliamentary questions, parliament committees, consultants, NGOs and several stakeholders. Handout journalists – the lazy bones – simply don’t tap sources enough and instead rely on whatever information they can squeeze from a friendly minister. The information flow has not stopped, just that the ease with which one gets information has changed.”
Journalists from regional newspapers continue to tap ministers/MPs from their respective states. “English newspapers are doing something or the other, but most Hindi newspapers are coming out with what the government doles out,” said a Political Editor from one of the Hindi newspapers.
Cabinet ministers indulging journalists in Central Hall is almost a thing of the past. After the first few months of no-talk, however, a few ministers are slowly beginning to talk. Inevitably these are the same ministers who talk with the media otherwise – Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad. “But what are they going to talk about? They themselves are out of the loop most of the time,” said a journalist who is a regular at Central Hall.
Comparison with the UPA regime was inevitable. Scams apart, there was a lot of internal bickering that found its way out to media. But now the picture has changed. “Earlier, during UPA time, the government had many loose canons and there was lot of cacophony and confusion. It suited the media but not the government. This government is streamlining everything and prioritizing governance,” said a bureau chief.
Two prominent takeaways 
1. Despite the general atmosphere of not talking to the media, ministers such as Arun Jaitley (whose evening durbars with journalists are much talked about), Nitin Gadkari, Uma Bharti, Venkaiah Naidu, Prakash Javadekar and Suresh Prabhu talk freely or at least do not evade queries.
In contrast, Rajnath Singh, who as the BJP chief was very media savvy, is reserved when it comes to meeting the media as the Home Minister. Singh, it seems, has finally started to settle down in the ministry. A few reporters who cover the ministry say that he is now starting to talk. “The kind of stories originating in the Ministry of Home Affairs are a testimony to the fact that slowly and steadily, cracks are appearing,” said a reporter.
The worst track record belongs to Minister of Human Resources Development SmritiIrani. Apparently, she has terrorized her officers so much they don’t even allow journalists to enter their rooms.
2. In general, the picture that has emerged is that the journalists covering ministries that are part of the Cabinet Committee on Security – Home, External Affairs, Finance, Defence and Human Resources Development – are the ones facing the most problems accessing information, along with business journalists. As against that, there appears to be no clampdown on development beats/ministries.
But this government’s extra-sensitivity towards information leaks can be dangerous for the government itself. As a journalist from a regional newspaper said: “Sometimes rumours are passed on as news. There is deadline pressure, there is pressure from the editor so if a journalist does not get any official word and he goes ahead with the story based on the information he has, it can be counterproductive for the government.”
Off the record quotes:
Q: What is the difference that you have noticed about people talking freely pre-Modi and post-Modi?
“You call up or write in a mail asking specific queries, they send out a statement never answering any specific queries.”
“Not really. People with whom you have a rapport, they are still talking. It depends on person to person.”
“Only those people who are hurt in some manner are talking. These are those people who have been forced to abandon certain habits. For instance, the biometric attendance system has meant better attendance even if that means for many, it is something against their habits of years. Or those whose comfort zone is disturbed (ahem, you know what it means), they are talking.”
“In beats such as IB, R&AW, CBI/NIA, people have always been reluctant. Those who spoke earlier, continue to speak now too.”
“If you are not dependent on PROs and you have a personal rapport with officials, ministers, the information flow never stops. If you have a good network, your sources never dry up.”

Q: Is your beat minister talking as freely as the earlier one?

“In financial ministries, it is a sort of mehfil of reporters, easy information but restricted to sectoral information.”
“Even the press conferences in finance/business/coal/power ministries are so structured, not a word extra comes out, only as much as the government wants.”
“Some ministers, for instance Prakash Javadekar, Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, Uma Bharti, speak quite freely. But again, the kind of information that they share is what the government wants. Unlike Congress ministers, these BJP wallahs don’t speak against each other. No juice.”
Q: Is your beat minister talking ‘off the record’? 
“Nirmala Seetharaman does not talk much.”
“Politicians are mercurial. If you pursue them sincerely, they eventually start talking, at least off the record.”
Q: Are your sources talking as freely as earlier?
For certain sensitive beats, such as Atomic Energy, earlier sources could be reached on their mobile phones, anywhere, all the time. “Now, they talk only and only on landlines.”
“Sources are talking. Maybe this dispensation is not as porous as the UPA regime …par koi toh hai bol raha hai. Varna stories jo bhee ho rahee hai, kaise ho rahee hai?”
The most negative comments were about the Human Resources Development Ministry. There are virtual gag orders and officers do not just prevent the entry of journalists into their rooms, they fear being seen with journalists outside. “I try to catch hold of HRD babus at sarkari functions, literally stealing away a minute or two of their time in chaos.”
“I have been covering the ministry for years now, so sources are good. But even they are not talking directly, they drop hints.”
“This December 25 as Good Governance Day controversy — what we do is monitor the ministry website. That becomes our source.”
“I really doubt how long this can go on. More you clamp down, more people will be willing to talk. Soon.”
“I do a story relying on my sources and she holds the joint secretary of that department responsible for it. He has not even spoken with anyone but bechara is at the receiving end.”
Q: (Then) how are you doing stories these days?
“Earlier there used to be ample ‘plants’ which are not happening – almost nil – nowadays.”
“Spoon feeding has stopped, the journalists have to earn their story now.”
“Also depends if the editors or the reporters are ready to take on the PM.”
“Journalists need to be enterprising. After the first six water-tight months, we should now be able to crack in.”
Q: Is there any way in which this lot is an improvement over the last one?
“BJP ministers Modi ko aajma rahe hain, Modi apne ministers ko aajma rahe hain (BJP ministers are trying Modi and Modi is trying his ministers).”
“Thanks to the biometric attendance system, people are found in the office.”
“There is a perception about change since Modi came, but nothing much has changed on the ground. For example, he introduced this Skill Development Ministry. Very good concept, but last I checked, it still had no office.”
“This government is anti-people, anti-poor, anti-tribal, anti-have-nots. Presumably it is pro-corporate, pro-upper class.”
“This government is still struggling to establish itself politically. Largely, bureaucrats are against change. Bureaucratic opposition from within is a bigger problem for this government. Modi’s action and conduct will put him in conflict with ministers and bureaucrats.”
 “All ministers keep praising Modi every time and anytime. But they don’t just stop at it. They make sure that they don’t speak a negative word about Modi. Just like Shani Dev!”
“The analogy can be fitting to the BJP’s pro-Hindutva image. If you are a devout, you pray to Lord Ram, talk with him, talk about him and possibly say sometimes, ‘See, Ram has not done this for me.’ But you will never ever say any such thing and dare to offend Shani Dev. Ditto for Modi. None of the ministers will say a single negative word — not even off the record — about him.”
About the respondents
The 50 respondents are all based in Delhi. Considering that the visual medium deals with stories differently, the respondents were all from the print media and almost all from English newspapers in the national capital (in alphabetical order): Asian Age, Business Standard, Deccan Herald, Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Mail Today, Mint, Pioneer, Statesman, Telegraph, The Hindu, Times of India and the Press Trust of India.
Some were from the major Hindi newspapers, including Amar Ujala, Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Hindustan, apart from a host of Delhi correspondents of regional newspapers from: Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa, Gujarat, Chandigarh and West Bengal.
These 50 included reporters (principal correspondents, special correspondents), state correspondents of papers outside Delhi, bureau chiefs, and political editors/managing editors.
Post script
** The arrest of Reliance officials and a former journalist among others in #Corporate Espionage and the latest #EssarLeaks have, in a way, come as a validation of what journalists from the pink papers have been saying, ie, no papers are doled out, there is a complete crackdown on lobbyists and, in general, journalists used to ‘hand outs’ are finding it difficult to survive.
** In January, Modi held an informal lunch meeting with ‘chosen’ editors following which even some ministers started informal lunch meetings with beat reporters. Smriti Irani is one of them.
(This was first published by The Hoot on March 3, 2015 and can be read here


Indore Marathi body’s members face jail ‘because the Mangeshkars failed to keep their word’

Sour Note: The body says it took a loan and scaled up a project in memory of Mangeshkars’ mother because the siblings promised help.

Mangeshkar siblings (Photo credit - AFP)
Mangeshkar siblings (Photo credit – AFP)

A cultural organisation in Indore is on the the brink of bankruptcy and its office bearers face a possible jail term because it alleges the Mangeshkar family – mainly singing legend Lata Mangeshkar and her brother Hridaynath Mangeshkar – failed to abide by an apparent funding promise.

The Marathi Samaj, a non-profit umbrella body of several organisations run by Marathi speakers, in 1999 started constructing a cultural institution called the Shuddhamati Tatha Mai Mangeshkar Bhawan, in memory of Mangeshkars’ mother . Lata Mangeshkar was born in Indore in 1929 and the Marathi community wanted to honour her mother by naming an auditorium after her. A loan of Rs 35 lakh was procured for the project by Marathi Samaj, office bearers contends, following a promise of financial help by the Mangeshkars.

Hridaynath Mangeshkar told that no assurances were given to the Indore body in writing.

Scale increased

About 22 years ago, the state allotted a 35,000-sq-feet plot to the Samaj at a nominal rate at Sneh Nagar in south-east Indore. Today, it houses a three-storey building with an imposing façade but incomplete interiors. The hall is complete with air-conditioning, but has no acoustic features.

The original project plan was modest and manageable with the Samaj’s resources. The Samaj alleges that the parameters were expanded in 1999 in keeping with the wishes of Hridaynath Mangeshkar when he visited Indore. So, it took a loan of Rs 35 lakh from the local Chhatrapati Cooperative Society 15 years ago.

The project report was sent to the Mangeshkars in 1999 and there was a series of correspondence between the Samaj and the Dinanath Smriti Pratishthan, the Mangeshkar family trust for charitable purposes.

Lata and Hridaynath Mangeshkar expressed happiness about the project through letters (see below). Hridaynath Mangeshkar promised, “Mai Mangeshkar sabhagruhachya nirman karyat aamhi Mangeshkar pariwar jaroor sahayog deu (We Mangeshkars would definitely help in construction of the Mai Mangeshkar Sabhagriha).”
Letter by Lata Mangeshkar
Letter by Lata Mangeshkar

The Pratishthan’s secretary wrote a letter to the Marathi Samaj in May, 1999, conveying the decision of the trust’s board. The Samaj says the Pratishthan gave an assurance that, among other things, Lata Mangeshkar would present a concert and all her siblings would attend it, free of cost, once 90% of the project work was complete. “The letter promised that the proceedings of the programme will go to the Samaj here,” said Anil Kumar Dhadwaiwale, senior director of the Marathi Samaj.

Accordingly, a bhumi pujan was arranged in October 1999 and was attended by then state Governor Mahavir Prasad and Adinath Mangeshkar, Hridaynath’s son. As work proceeded, Hridaynath Mangeshkar and sisters Usha, Asha and Meena, who made several trips to Indore for music concerts, visited the venue several times, claims the Marathi Samaj.

But no funds came the Samaj’s way, it alleges. “We spent another Rs 5 lakh sending delegations to the Mangeshkars in Mumbai and the Pratisthan office in Pune over the last five years,” said Dhadwaiwale. “There has been no response.”

Over the years, the loan amount with interest increased to Rs 1.10 crore. Even though the building is not fully complete, the Samaj claims, it started holding programmes and renting out the place since 2010 to lessen the loan burden. But with the Samaj unable to repay the full sum, a court at the District Registrar Cooperative Department, Madhya Pradesh, filed a case against it five years ago.

Inference of commitment

Hridaynath Mangeshkar said there was no formal agreement with the Samaj and expressed inability to provide any help. “There was no written agreement [that we will provide finance for the project],” he told this journalist over phone. “At that point of time, it was not possible for us to spare any money. We had the Dinanath Mangeshkar Hospital project [in Pune] with Rs 100 crore budget.”

The veteran music director and singer recalls that the Marathi Samaj officials have been requesting a programme in Indore. “It was not possible then…and considering Didi’s [Lata’s] health owing to her age, it does not seem possible now,” he said.

Ashok Chitale, a senior advocate who spends time between Indore and Delhi, said: “There may not be any expressed, formal indenture on stamp paper and signed in presence of witnesses. But available correspondence, the bhumi pujan by Adinath leads to the inference of commitment to the project by Hridaynath Mangeshkar.” Chitale is not a member nor an office bearer of the Samaj.

Last month, the final arguments in the default case were heard in a court at the Madhya Pradesh government’s District Registrar Cooperative Department. “The judgment is expected anytime,” Dhadwaiwale said. “We will know soon if we are going to jail because the Mangeshkars went back on their word.”

Letter by Hridaynath Mangeshkar
Letter by Hridaynath Mangeshkar


Letter sent by the secretary of the Deenanath Smriti Pratishthan to Marathi Samaj, Indore
Letter sent by the secretary of the Deenanath Smriti Pratishthan to Marathi Samaj, Indore

Mangeshkar Story 3


This story was first published by on December 17, 2014. It can be read here



India claims plan for new energy mix is a game-changer

The huge India One solar thermal power plant in Rajasthan. Image: Bkwcreator via Wikimedia Commons
The huge India One solar thermal power plant in Rajasthan.
Image: Bkwcreator via Wikimedia Commons

While the political spotlight focused on the  world’s two biggest polluters − China and the US − in the run-up to the Lima climate talks, pressure is mounting on India to set emissions targets to help prevent the planet overheating.

NEW DELHI, 10 December, 2014 − India’s contribution to global carbon emissions was only 7% last year, yet there are fears being expressed in the western world that rapid population growth and development will mean this vast country will soon be a major polluter − like its neighbour, China.

For the world, it is a continued worry that if the country soon to have the largest population in the world develops − as China has − by burning coal, climate change will surely get out of control.

No commitments on climate change have so far been made by India, as it waits to see what the developed countries offer to prove they are serious about aid, technology transfer, and targets to reduce their own emissions.

Carbon tax

But while priority in India has been given to development − particularly providing electricity for the millions who live without it − and tackling poverty, the newly-elected government has made a promising start on recognising the importance of climate change.

It has a new energy policy centred on an ambitious increase in solar power capacity − from the current 20,000 megawatts to 100,000 MW in five years. There is a Rupees 5 billion ($80 million) budget this year alone for “ultra mega” solar projects. And a carbon tax on coal has also been doubled for the purpose of subsidising solar and other renewables.

Prakash Javadekar, India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change minister, said before heading for the UN climate change conference being held in Lima, Peru: “This game-changer energy mix will give us enhanced energy efficiency and save 50 million tonnes of coal. That’s a huge contribution to the world, and will affect our emissions. We will walk the clean water, clean air, clean power path.”

“Both solar and coal power will increase,
but that is our energy mix”

There have been reports about a possible announcement next month – when US president Barack Obama visits New Delhi − of the year in which India intends its greenhouse gas emissions to peak.

However, Javadekar refused to set a timeline, despite the apparent pressure after the US-China joint declaration that the US will reduce emissions by 2025 and China’s will peak by 2030. All countries are supposed to inform the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by March 2015 of their action plans for emission reductions.

Javadekar said India is putting in place several action plans for achieving the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions as part of the 2015 agreement. But he made clear that the “peaking year” will not be the benchmark set at Lima; it will be “India’s contribution” − and will be much more than expected.

India, which is expected to surpass China’s current 1.3 billion population by 2030, has always defended its position, as its emissions are less than 2 tonnes per capita, compared with about 7.2 tonnes in China and 16.4 tonnes in the US.

“Our growth cannot be compromised,” Javadekar said. “We have the right to develop, and our priority is to eliminate poverty and meet the aspirations.”

Objections raised

Asked how India will address objections raised by developed countries to it digging more dirty coal, despite its ambitious solar programme, Javadekar insisted: “We are not going on the ‘business as usual’ path − although we are entitled to it. Both solar and coal power will increase, but that is our energy mix. We are doing our own actions under domestic legislations.”

There is a rift at the Lima talks between the developed and the developing countries on the issue of capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund under the 2015 Paris agreement, and this has already seen the G77 group of nations banding together.

Sunita Narain, director general of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environmentthinktank, referred to this in talking about the “politics of climate change”, and how the global south is being short-changed by the global north.

She said climate change talks are about achieving clean economic growth, but, 25 years after talks began, the world is “still procrastinating and finding excuses not to act”. – Climate News Network

(This was originally published by Climate News Network on December 10, 2014 and it can be read here

Incredible life of Rubina Patel

Nagpur: Incredible! That is how Rubina Patel’s life story is.

She came from a well to do, educated, business family, married to a teacher, blessed with two children. She wanted to study and help the community through her social work. But her life went on an unexpected trajectory.

If fighting against an abusive father was not enough, she faced a violent husband, who pushed her into a well. As if her lonely struggle against corrupt system – vis-à-vis police and court staff that prevented and delayed justice to her – was not enough, she has even faced death threats.

Rubina Patel of Nagpur

Rubina Patel of Nagpur

But, rising above her odds, fighting and hoping against hope, Rubina survived all this and much more. And today, the 39-year-old resident of Tajbagh area, near the Tajuddin Baba Dargah, has become an inspiration for all. She counsels divorced Muslim women and helps out needy young girls and even elder women by training them to earn a living.

She was awarded the Baburao Samant Sangharsh Puraskar 2014 on October 18th.

Early life, marriage and near death experience
Rubina’s father was an educated businessman from Umred, about 50 kms from Nagpur. She dreamt of higher studies and wanted to do social work. But her drunkard father won’t let her study. He would harass her and her mother, not let her eat and even beat her. “Paida karna jurm kyun nahee hai? (Why is giving a birth not considered a crime),” she says in chaste Urdu, one of the four languages – Marathi, Hindi and English being other three – that she is fluent in and alternates with ease.

Rubina interacts with Firdaus Anjum (right), enrolled in one-year fashion designing course along with Neha Anjum, a BA student. “I came to know about the course through pamphlets and some girls from my area too had done this course,” Neha says.
Rubina interacts with Firdaus Anjum (right), enrolled in one-year fashion designing course along with Neha Anjum, a BA student. “I came to know about the course through pamphlets and some girls from my area too had done this course,” Neha says.

A devout to the core, prayers and reciting namaz were a constant then in her life. She was barely 18 – studying in class 12th – when she was married off to a teacher, then posted at Pahla village in Bhandara district, as she thought “marriage would change things” for her. Five years and two children later – the son is now 21 years and daughter 18 – she was in for a rude shock.

Rubina’s husband started ill-treating her. She faced domestic violence and was tortured physically, mentally and sexually. During this time, her will to study prompted her to take up Bachelor in Arts (BA) course but that too was met with hurdles. Her husband would tear up books, ask ‘how she filled up the form without asking?’ and one year, did not even let her go for examination.

One day, her husband brought a ‘talaq ka fatwa’ from a local Mufti. After her father died, her uncle had usurped their property so Rubina’s mother had gone to stay with her own brother. Rubina and her daughter were with Rubina’s mother when the news of talaq reached her. Her husband won’t meet her or allow her to meet their son. With a strong urge to meet her son, she went to the village Kondha Kosra, where husband was then posted.

“July 7, 2007. I can never forget that fateful evening!” Rubina recalls, her eyes looking distant. Her husband not just verbally abused and physically tormented her; he actually pushed and dumped her into a well in their courtyard.

A dangling pipe of a submersible pump inside the well saved her but her left leg was fractured. She remained there in darkness for more than an hour. Her husband had threatened all onlooking neighbours. Almost 1 ½ hours later, several women goaded their husbands to pull her out. “Hanging for my life, I still was thinking about meeting my son. Unfortunately that time, he never listened to me and never met me,” she says her tone palpably sad and angry at once.

Rubina Patel with her project coordinator Shahina at the gate of Rubi Training Institute
Rubina Patel with her project coordinator Shahina at the gate of Rubi Training Institute

Lonely struggle and the zeal for life

With a fractured left leg, she lay on her bed for almost six months, with bouts of crying interspersed with long depressing silence. On one hand she could not believe what had happened with her. On the other, tears won’t stop thinking what next? Her worries were only augmented when her husband lodged a case against her under section 309 (Attempt to commit suicide).

That started another round of trying period for her. Travelling to the court alone, studying and preparing her matter and arguing the case herself. “Even the judge was impressed by my work,” she recalls with a fleeting smile, and, adds quickly, “But no use. Police connived with my husband.”

Every time she would ask the policeman “Did you ask my husband if he has shown me thetalaq ka kaghaz?”, “Did you ask him if he has paid Mehar amount to me?” or “Have you asked if he has returned my stree dhan?” the policemen and even the court staff would find newer excuses of not doing so. (Stree dhan – jewellery / money that a woman in Maharashtra gets at the time of her marriage).

Slowly, slowly her thinking started changing. Her prayers were not answered, her life didn’t show any promise.

“I knew just one thing. I wanted to live for my daughter.” By this time, she had called her mother back from her Mamaji’s place and the trio lived together at Nagpur. It took her 10 years to complete her BA course. Then she did a B Ed course and started working in a school. Masters in Social Work (MSW) and Masters in Arts (MA) followed.

But bouts of depressions continued to haunt her. “I was going to dargah, was offering namaz and prayed regularly. But nothing was happening. One day, as if hit by a bolt, I said, “Enough!” and I felt as if I was free from the bondage of religion. Then I thought to myself, I am independent now, I can do what I want. I can pursue all my dreams now.”

Meanwhile, she was cleared in the ‘attempt to suicide’ case but her counter case challenging her talaq remains incomplete.

Rubi Training Institute building
Rubi Training Institute building

Rubi Social Welfare Society
In 2005, during her MSW course itself, she had started counseling poor needy women from her locality and started Rubi Social Welfare Society from a one-room rented house. As her work expanded, she interacted with several other activists and organizations she started attending workshops on gender and women’s empowerment. In 2008, she came in contact with famous Mumbai based women’s rights activist Hasina Khan and her Aawaz-e-Niswaan (Voice of the Women). It inspired her to do more, expand the scope of her work.

The society has a counseling centre at Kuhi, another village in Nagpur district. Along with women’s rights work there, she also mobilized the women of that village, with about 50,000 population, to organize a daaru bandi protest (no liquor campaing) but did not succeed.

In 2011, Rubina opened the training centre – Rubi Training Institute – with an aim to offer livelihood related course to make women financially independent. “Women from my society, especially poor and illiterate, suffer a lot. And if they are talaq pidit(divorce sufferers), they face more problems. And what are the reasons for divorce? Small little things! Then, there are those taboos – don’t do this, do go there, don’t talk with that man, don’t venture out without a burqa. Burqa sirf kapde ka nahee hota hai, dharm ka bhee hota hai,” the young activist asserts.

Today the training centre – recognized by the government for vocational courses – offers Beauty Culture, Montessori and Computer, for a nominal fee of R500 or R1000. Montessori training is a 9-months course with 10-12 ladies per batch; Beauty Culture training course runs for 6 months with 15 ladies per batch while the fashion designing is a full year course with 15 women and young girls.

The five-room building, an erstwhile school, belongs to the Hazrat Baba Tajuddin Trust and offered to her on a nominal rent. The institute has 3 teachers, one legal advisor, a project coordinator, two community workers and three other persons at the Kuhi centre. Rubi has handled 800-850 cases of counseling. Recently they also started anti-trafficking work at Bhandara district.

Rubi Training Institute building
Rubi Training Institute building

Rubina also reaches out to women from villages, slums and economically backward colonies. Women associated with her often stage demonstrations for their issues. In recognition for her work, she has won the Keshav Gore Smarak Trust Puraskar, Hamid Dalwai Puraskar and Ram Aapte Prabodhan Puraskar since then apart from the latest award in October.

As her work increased, there were people, especially men and religious clerics, who didn’t like what she was doing. In 2011, a mother came pleading to save her underage daughter from getting married. Her husband had thrown her out. “I rang up the area DCP and got the local ACP and the police inspector to stop that marriage. Next thing I know is an irate morcha coming for my life. Police also later came to know about a conspiracy to kill me,” a confident Rubina rattles off similar incidents and puts forth an important point.

A man treats his wife in a different manner but when it comes to his own sister or daughter, he takes a different stand. Rubina hopes: “That’s where my work is.”

(This was first published by on November 9, 2014 and can be read at

South Asia slow to act on water threats

The Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India Image NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons

Satellite image of the vast Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India
Image: NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons

A study of the five countries sharing and relying on the Indian sub-continent’s great rivers shows that Bangladesh is the only one that is taking climate change seriously

Even before this year’s delayed and inadequate monsoon recently brought some relief to the Indian sub-continent, researchers discovered widespread concern by local experts that their governments are mismanaging the water supplies on which a billion people depend for survival, and giving insufficient attention to climate change.

A new report, Attitudes to Water in South Asia, explores domestic water management and transboundary water issues in five countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. It focuses on two river systems, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and the Indus-Kabul basins, which are vital to the lives of a vast population.

Chatham House – the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs − worked on the report with India’s Observer Research Foundation, and similar partner organisations in the other four countries. Their findings are based on evidence from almost 500 interviews conducted in the five countries in 2013 with a range of water experts, government officials, policy-makers and decision-makers from NGOs and the private sector.

Observing that water is “highly politicised in the region, with strong links to food security and the livelihoods of the large proportion of the population dependent on agriculture”, the report underscores the relation between the domestic mismanagement of water in each country and the failure to address transboundary water relations.

Few agreements

“In spite of the shared river system and the interdependencies, South Asian governments have signed few bilateral water agreements and no regional ones,” the report says. “Those transboundary water treaties that do exist face criticism on a number of grounds: for time periods too short to too long; and for their lack of provision for environmental factors or new challenges, such as climate change.”.

Yet the ability of countries in South Asia to deal with the possible effects of climate change will be in part determined by their ability to manage water, and also how they deal with weather events such as floods and droughts.

“The majority . . .  expressed concern that their governments
were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention”

While many respondents across the region felt that other immediate concerns were more pressing, the majority of those interviewed expressed concern that their governments were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention,” said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and lead author of the report.

For instance, in Afghanistan, even where respondents had some knowledge of the body responsible for setting government-wide policy on climate change, they were equally certain that the amount of practical action on ground was virtually zero.

In Bangladesh, where most respondents were acutely aware of climate change and its possible effects, many said their government was doing better. There was a general consensus that ministers had made climate change a priority by setting aside funds for adaptation and mitigation.

However, Afghani and Bangladeshi respondents noted the lack of availability of important policy documents − currently available only in English − in local languages..

And Indian respondents felt that climate change was not a major priority for the government, although it was widely recognised that it could wreak havoc on the country.

“Inadequate water storage leaving farmers vulnerable to the vagaries of weather suggest an urgent need for appropriate investment in such facilities in order to not just increase agriculture production, but also to ensure farmers have an option to adjust to changing climate,” the report says.

Food security

Climate change could also have a big impact on the transboundary water relations, the report warns. Some respondents from India and Bangladesh feared that a variation in the timing and intensity of monsoons could affect agricultural production and weaken food security, “driving tension between the two countries over access to water in a dry period”.

Interviewees from Nepal perceived climate change as a “future threat”, in comparison with immediate challenges and the need to increase access to water and electricity. Most respondents felt that Nepal’s approach was “inadequate” and pointed out the gap between national plans and local implementation.

Pakistani respondents believed their country’s approach to climate change lacked “urgency”. They particularly pointed out that a Ministry of Climate Change had recently been reduced to a mere division of another ministry, and had had its funding slashed by 62%.

Brink of cataclysm

The report quoted a climate change expert working with the Pakistan government, who said his country stood on the brink of an environmental cataclysm, with the seasonal monsoon shifting away from traditional catchment areas towards Afghanistan. “This trend, reinforced by climate change, [has]increased the likelihood of extraordinary rainfall patterns, cloudbursts, and flash floods,” he said.

The researchers’ recommendations Include: improving domestic water management, and rainwater harvesting; enhancing data collection, data sharing and discussions between the five countries, particularly in relation to floods and droughts, and the management of watersheds and river basins; easing water demand through less water-intensive crops and irrigation methods.

They also stress that existing treaties should be revisited, ensuring that they address technological advances, environmental factors and climate change. – Climate News Network

(This was first published by Climate News Network on July 7, 2014 and it can be read at )

Poly-houses help India’s farmers survive erratic weather

Small and marginal farmers in India’s Himachal Pradesh state are supplementing their income from vegetable production thanks to poly-houses that regulate temperature and other climatic conditions 

Jagdish Chandra inside his poly-house at Kandbari village

Jagdish Chandra inside his poly-house at Kandbari village


Hilly terrain and increasingly uncertain climatic conditions have restricted agricultural development in India’s hill state of Himachal Pradesh. But increased demand for vegetables due to rapid urbanisation and growing tourism have come as boon for the state, which is now pushing poly-houses (also known as polytunnels) to help farmers, particularly small and marginal ones, tide over climate changes with an assured vegetable crop, even off-season.

A poly-house works on the concept of a greenhouse that lets in light and traps heat inside. But instead of glass, it is made from polythene sheets or flexible plastic sheets.

Marginal and small farmers are the group most affected by the vagaries of nature. But the use of poly-houses for growing vegetables – promoted by the state government by offering subsidies – has increased their yield in a given cycle and also helped them harvest vegetables in three cycles each year. These small land holdings are mostly located on hill slopes near where the farmers live.

According to state government records, small and marginal farmers (with up to two hectares of land) comprise 87% of total land holdings. Medium farmers (with 2-10 hectares of land)  form about 13% and large land holding farmers are only about 0.4%.

A poly-house – built as part of the state government’s ‘precision farming practices’ project – helps the farmers protect crops or vegetables from sudden hailstorms or excessive rains and erratic temperature changes. Even in harsh winters, poly-houses help farmers earn from off-season cultivation. The state has received assistance from National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) for this scheme.

Jagdish Chandra, a farmer from Kandbari village near the town of Palampur, is one of those who has benefited from poly-houses. Chandra, who owns about four hectares of land, installed two poly-houses (one 105 square metres and another 250 square metres) in 2009 when the subsidy was offered for the first time. Five years later, he is happy to have shifted to the modern technique which has increased his yield by more than 70%.

“Depending on natural rain, I used to get two crops but the second was not always assured. Now I get three crop cycles in a year,” Chandra said, showing the vegetables inside his poly-house right next to his home.

He grows capsicum, tomato, bitter gourd, radish, beans and coriander using drip irrigation. The process is completely organic. “We need to keep check on the temperature inside the poly-house. If it is too warm inside, then we have the sprinkler to cool down the temperature. At other times, when it is cooler outside and warmer inside, all we do is simply open the door,” he added.

His small village has four more farmers using poly-houses to grow vegetables.

The state-government run Precision Farming Development Centre (PFDC) at Solan helps by designing poly-houses and offering training to farmers. It also provides farmers with technical assistance during the actual crop cycle. When the government offered subsidies for poly-houses for the first time in 2009, the centre trained only about eight-10 farmers per year. In 2013, this number increased to more than 50 farmers per year.

Saving water

“Poly-houses help reduce evaporation. Farmers can thus use sprinkler and/or drip irrigation and save water,” said R.S. Spehia, assistant professor at PFDC.

Scientist H.R. Sharma has dispelled fears poly-houses use excessive water – as has been the case with rose cultivation using poly-houses especially in plains.

“We are talking about poly-houses in the hills. Here temperatures are lower (compared to plains) and hence evaporation is less. Moreover, we promote poly-houses with drip irrigation, which further lessens the water use,” Sharma, who is principal scientist at the Regional Horticulture Research and Training Station at Mashobra in Shimla, said.

The state government provides as much as 80% of the costs while the farmer needs to pitch in the remaining 20%. The subsidy includes a water harvesting system with the poly-house, explained a government official.

“Productivity…especially for ‘poly-house suitable crops’ such as capsicum, tomato, peas, beans, cucurbits etc. have shown significant increase,” Spehia said.

For example, production of tomatoes increased by 15% comparing 2007-09 and 2010-12. The production of beans and cucurbits increased by 13% during the same period.

By December 2013, 13,500 poly-houses had been constructed. An area of 147 hectares had been covered under protective cultivation. This far exceeds state government targets. In February 2013, chief minister Virbhadra Singh had said during his budget speech: “I propose Rs 100 crore (about US$16 million) to popularise farming inside poly-houses to augment farmers’ incomes. The target is set for constructing 4,700 poly-houses.”

“We have been recommending naturally ventilated poly-houses of bamboo, locally available, which can be used with certain modifications to cut the initial investment,” Spehia said.

(The story was originally published by on October 7, 2014 and it can be read here –

For more than 20 years, a slim book has helped Indian farmers become self-reliant in water

‘The Lakes Are Still Alive’ by Anupam Mishra is helping villagers rediscover ancient water-conservation methods.

A farm pond in Mahoba district
A farm pond in Mahoba district

This year, in the parched district of Mahoba in Bundelkhand, in southern Uttar Pradesh, where persistent drought has led to large-scale migration over the past decade, several ponds were full of water even before the monsoon began.

These are ponds that farmers began building in March 2013 as part of the Apna Talaab Abhiyaan (Build Your Own Pond Campaign), which was started by local non-profits and activists from New Delhi, and supported by the district administration, with the aim of making farmers less dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon.

Most of these ponds, which filled up during last year’s monsoon, retained water until March, while the larger ones had water even until it began raining again this year. By July, almost 400 ponds in the district had been constructed.

“Anupamji and his book inspired us,” said Kesar Singh, a Delhi-based activist working in the district, when asked why farmers began this project. He was referring to Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (The Lakes Are Still Alive), written by Anupam Mishra, an environmentalist associated with the Gandhi Peace Foundation, who edits Gandhi Marg, a Hindi magazine published once in two months that propagates Gandhian thought.

Twenty years after it was published, the slim copyright-free volume, written in lucid Hindi, has inspired scores of farmers, government officials and activists across the country to use a variety of simple methods to make their communities self-reliant in water.

Published in July 1993, the book is a useful compendium of traditional rainwater harvesting practices across India. The book, accessible online, has described how decentralised water storage systems such as baolis (step wells), kuis (wells with small diameters), chaals (very small water body along a slope, typical of Uttarakhand), johads (tanks that are fed by earthen check dams), ponds, tanks, wells and lakes, can help communities withstand drought.

Traditional methods

Traditionally, farmers who depended entirely on rainfall could grow only one crop a year. Only those who had their own water source, such as large wells or water bodies nearby, could plant another crop. In time, access to dams and canal networks, as well as tube wells that drew from groundwater, enabled many farmers to plant two to three crops a  year.

But in many places, the drawbacks of these these irrigation systems  became apparent. Villages sometimes constructed so many bore wells that the water table sank too low to make it economic to extract. In other instances, the water was contaminated. Dams and canal networks, for their part, came with enormous construction costs and displaced thousands of people.

Rather than inundating large areas, displacing people and then spending on transporting water from far away, Mishra realised that de-centralised methods work better in the long run. The simple but more effective method, he felt, ought to be: catch rain where it falls.

In his book, Mishra describes traditional methods that communities across India used to take care of their water resources. “The British introduced piped water systems and dams, and then the government took over water bodies, cutting communities off,” Mishra writes in his book. “Unfortunately, after Independence, our planners did not rectify the situation.”

For instance, in Rajasthan, a state with very little rainfall, communities always had kuis,
baolis and johads but have have atrophied over the years. Mishra and others like him stepped in to remind people to rediscover traditional practices.

Decentralised water storage systems can also be built in cities. “But Delhi and Mumbai does not care because these cities know they can bully resource-rich areas and get their water,” said Mishra. “Yet they will also have to learn, sooner or later.”

Experiments with water

Mahoba is only of the more recent examples of a community becoming self-reliant in water after using the traditional methods mentioned in Mishra’s book. Dewas in Madhya Pradesh and Lapodia in Rajasthan are two other, older examples.

In 2004, Lapodia and its environs in Rajasthan’s Alwar district were facing drought for the sixth consecutive year. While there was large-scale migration from most villages, Lapodia was spared because it had for more than a decade been working to revive two of its large tanks and developed pastures for its livestock near the water bodies.

It had done so with the help of Tarun Bharat Sangh, a non-profit working for water conservation and empowerment of communities in Alwar district. The group was founded by Rajendra Singh, who won the Magsaysay award in 2001, for his work on water conservation. He is all praise for Mishra’s book.

“The book has an important place in today’s India when it comes to community-based water management,” said Singh. “It offers insights into technical, social and cultural aspects, all three of which combined to spur the fabulous art of lake-building.”

Other examples abound. Across India, more than 40,000 water bodies have been built spurred by the book, estimates Mishra. There are almost  2,500 lakes in the Thar desert area, Mishra says. Inspired by the book, four large tanks were repaired near Chennai, while the Karnataka Jal Sanghe renovated and constructed several ponds and lakes.

Mishra’s inspiration

Mishra started thinking about self-reliance in water in the early 1980s, when he was travelling through Rajasthan. He was impressed by the several kunds, tanks and lakes in some places that he came across that were fully functional even in the scorching summer.

Soon afterwards, he travelled through Goa. There, he saw that the lush green paradise was slowly turning into a concrete jungle with resorts, hotels and private homes coming up in places that were catchment areas for water. There, he noticed that after the monsoon, water stocks decreased drastically. Tankers were needed to supply water to many villages as the groundwater had depleted rapidly after monsoon.

“I was impressed by the fact that a place such as Rajasthan that had such little rainfall had immense respect for every drop of water,” Mishra said. “In contrast, Goa, where the rain god was sending a bountiful monsoon, was suffering due to faulty practices.”

The comparison set him thinking, travelling, meeting people and trying to understand what different communities were doing with water. In 1991, he started writing the book.

Free distribution

From day one, Mishra decided that the book would be free of copyright. Over the years, as more people discovered the book’s value, they printed it themselves, some selling it for a profit, others for a cause.

So far, the book has been translated into a dozen Indian languages. Bharat Gyan Vigyan Prakashan, a Delhi-based publication house, brought out 25,000 copies in 1995, followed by publishers from Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, whose government also printed 25,000 copies, and Maharashtra.

Two years ago, Farhad Contractor, the founder of Sambhaav , a non-profit that that has promoted community-based rainwater harvesting in the Thar desert area for the past 25 years, printed it and gave several hundred copies to Mishra for distribution.

“We need to understand that not everything can be bought,” Contractor said. “This book is basically communities’ knowledge that we want to share. It has inspired and mobilised scores of people. We thought that it would be good if those who actually work on ground read it.”

(This was first published by and can be read here,-a-slim-book-has-helped-Indian-farmers-become-self-reliant-in-water)