Posts Tagged ‘India’



A little while ago I was sleeping on a train from New Delhi to the northern Indian city of Lucknow where I live. At 3am I was jolted awake by a sudden stop. I slowly came to learn that the country’s entire northern grid had failed, leaving us stuck on the tracks and millions more without power. Sitting on a train for 15 and a half hours while travelling alone gave me a lot of time to think about why things like this happen and what it means for the rest of the world.

power outage cnn Blackout

via CNN

Over the course of the next few days, over 600 million people lost power after the northern and eastern grids both collapsed. But what is really shocking is that one billion people in the world live without electricity every day. As about one-sixth of the world’s population languished in the dark and heat and people in 20 of the 28 Indian states were affected, some of the millions living in energy poverty were unaware that anything was even wrong. Some of those living in energy poverty, a term that refers to the situation of large numbers of people in the developing world who are adversely affected by their lack of access to basic energy services, seem to be so used to inconsistent electricity that yet another black out did not raise any red flags.

So what does that say about India’s power-hungry dash to the “top” and who is being left behind on the way? While the Indian government has rolled out several bold plans to bring energy to rural areas over the last few years, 56% of rural Indian households still lack electricity according to the International Energy Agency. That means that overall productivity for those not on the grid is much lower than it needs to be. Children cannot do their homework after dark, people cannot take advantage of technological advancements, hospitals cannot function properly…even at my office in the state capital the power goes out six or seven times daily and I lose hours every day waiting for the internet to come back on.

In the news we hear a lot about how India is on the cusp of greatness. But how can they get there when 65% of the total population is still in the dark? Now more than ever there needs to be a greater focus on renewable energy in India and worldwide. If anything, this grid failure should teach us that we need clean alternatives as the future of India’s power consumption becomes more complex.

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The Right to Pee

Sanitation is one of the most important human rights issues within the water field. This article in the New York Times by Jim Yardley describes the reality of what it means to not be afforded this right. Find the original article here: In Mumbai, A Campaign against Restroom Injustice.

15india photo articleLarge The Right to Pee

"A woman in Mumbai, India, washing the feet of her child outside an open toilet on stilts where the waste goes directly into an open water source." Credit: Prashanth Vishwanathan for The New York Times

MUMBAI, India — Men and women here in India’s largest city, a congested, humanity-soaked metropolis of roughly 20 million residents, would seem bound by at least one common misery: far too many people sharing far too few toilets.

But there is a difference — unlike men, women often have to pay to urinate. So for months, social advocates like Minu Gandhi have canvassed the city, arguing that this disparity amounts to blatant discrimination and asking women to start demanding a right most of them had never contemplated: the Right to Pee.

“We all feel this is a basic civic right,” Ms. Gandhi said, “a human right.”

India has long had a sanitation problem. Recent census data found that more than half of Indian households lacked a toilet, a rate that has actually worsened in the past decade despite India’s growing wealth, as slums and other substandard housing have proliferated in growing cities. Yet what is unique about the so-called Right to Pee campaign — whose catchy title was coined by the Mumbai media and which now appears to be on the verge of achieving some of its goals — is the argument that the bathroom in India is governed by a double standard.

Like men, women in villages often must urinate outdoors, in fields. But unlike them, they sometimes endure taunting and even sexual assault. Many rural women relieve themselves in small groups, before dawn, to protect against harassment.

In Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, millions of people depend on public toilets, which are usually in dark and filthy buildings that operate as male-controlled outposts. The municipal government provides 5,993 public toilets for men, compared with only 3,536 for women. Men have an additional 2,466 urinals. (A 2009 study found an even greater imbalance in New Delhi, the national capital, with 1,534 public toilets for men and 132 for women.)

Almost always, a male attendant oversees these toilets, collecting fees. Petty corruption is rampant in India, and public toilets are no exception: Men must pay to use a toilet but can use urinals free (based on the premise that urinals, usually just a wall and a drainage trench, do not need water). But women are regularly charged to urinate, despite regulations saying they should not be.

“Even if you say you are only urinating, they say, ‘How do we know?’ ” said Yagna Parmar, another social activist involved in the campaign. “So they ask for money.”

At the northern rim of the city, inside a slum known as Shivaji Nagar, at least 350,000 people — perhaps twice that many by some estimates — live pressed together beside one of the city’s largest dumps. The exact number of public toilets is unclear but, by one estimate, the ratio is no better than 1 toilet for every 300 people. Women must adapt their daily routines: Many visit the bathroom early in the morning to avoid lines and leering. They avoid drinking much water. And they carry change.

On a recent broiling morning, Mohammad Nasibul Ansari sat at the counter in front of a decrepit public toilet, gripping 10 rupee notes in his hand. A salaried attendant, Mr. Ansari said he did not charge anyone in the neighborhood — only outsiders — yet even as he spoke, a local woman walked up, wordlessly placed a 2 rupee coin on the counter and stepped into the women’s side of the small building.

“We’re just poor people,” Mr. Ansari said. “We have to take care of our families.”

Mr. Ansari said the city government provided no money for maintenance and that he collected about 1,200 rupees, or $22, every day in toilet usage fees, from which he paid for electricity, water and cleaning. Yet inside, there was little evidence of cleaning or water. Cobwebs dangled from the ceiling; dirt and dried spit smeared the walls and floor. The ceramic squat toilets were stained and squalid. The stench was overwhelming.


“Do you really think what they are saying is true?” Usha Deshmukh, one of the Right to Pee advocates, derisively asked later. “They are cheating. They are eating all the money.”

Separately, a miniscandal erupted in New Delhi last week when it was disclosed that the country’s Planning Commission had spent roughly $54,000 to refurbish its toilets. Reflecting the sensitivity in India over the issue, at least one critic argued that the money could have been better spent on public toilets.

The campaign began last year when a coalition of social advocates gathered from around the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai. Organizers in each city chose different issues, including domestic violence and equal access to water. The Mumbai group considered campaigns on housing, water or sanitation — all big problems in the city — before deciding on the Right to Pee.

“Initially, this was considered a little frivolous,” said Mumtaz Sheikh, one of the organizers. “But we told people, ‘No, this is an important issue, and we want to work on it.’ ”

Ms. Sheikh and other advocates saw an opportunity to raise awareness among women. Women now constitute almost half the city’s work force, yet many of them work in jobs with no access to a toilet. In various parts of the city, including slums, activists have gone door to door, collecting more than 50,000 signatures supporting their demands that the local government stop charging women to urinate, build more toilets, keep them clean, provide sanitary napkins and a trash can, and hire female attendants.

Dr. Kamaxi Bhati, a physician and a researcher, linked the toilet situation in Mumbai directly to female health problems, especially a high incidence of urinary tract and bladder infections. Dr. Bhati said drinking water was vital to stave off such infections, yet many women tried to reduce water intake to limit how often they had to urinate. Not drinking enough water is doubly dangerous, given that temperatures can reach triple digits in Mumbai.

“It’s the responsibility of the government to provide toilets,” she said. “Suppose my child has diarrhea. What do I do if I can’t pay?”

Municipal officials were willing to release statistics on the number of public toilets in the city but otherwise refused to comment on the issue, despite scores of requests made to three city departments.

The toilet fees might be considered nominal, ranging from 2 to 5 rupees (about 4 to 9 cents). Yet in India, the poverty line is so low that the government recently defined the urban poor as those living on less than 29 rupees a day.

“It’s expensive for me,” Shubhangi Gamre said of the cost to visit the toilet. She lives in Shivaji Nagar and earns about $27 a month working in a tiny drugstore. “It cuts into our food money. How can we afford everything?”

Perhaps the months of canvassing and campaigning will pay off. Last week, social advocates met with city officials who told them of new plans to build hundreds of public toilets for women across the city. Some local legislators are now vowing to build toilets for women in every one of their districts.

Nothing is official yet, and promises often do not become reality in Indian politics. But the activists feel momentum is now in their favor.

“Of course it’s a good feeling,” said Supriya Sonar, a member of the campaign, saying that the Right to Pee group is now lobbying for women to be hired in the proposed projects. “Our actual work starts now.”


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Up and up

I rarely post about things not directly related to water or environmental sustainability, but I wanted to share a piece I was recently asked to write about International Women’s Day for American Jewish World Service’s blog. You can see the original here.

On International Women’s Day, Let’s Remember Why Women in India Must Have an Education

iwd2 290x300 Up and upOn New Year’s Day, Maya and I were eating fried pastries on the side of the road in rural Uttar Pradesh, India. I am living in this northeastern part of India as an AJWS World Partners Fellow, and Maya works with me at an NGO that promotes gender equality and women’s health. Maya rented a car and invited me to join her on a visit to a temple near our home in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. Over chai and a snack, Maya started to tell me how she left her village to move to Lucknow, the nearest urban center, to pursue an education. Now she heads the Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights team at our organization and, at 28, is finishing her Ph.D. thesis. She wears jeans to work, owns her own motorcycle and frequents the giant air-conditioned cineplex at The Fun Mall (yes, Fun Mall is a proper noun in this case). Her lifestyle now makes it hard for me to imagine a time when nearly her entire village urged her father to not let her go to university.The picture she painted for me about her struggles puts into perspective the hardships of many girls in India. Maya was lucky enough to come from a middle-class family. She has supportive parents, yet she still had to work hard for everything she has today. For every woman who has left the village to get a college degree, there are probably thousands who will never have that opportunity. In fact, according to the 2011 Indian Census, more than one-third of Indian girls are illiterate, and the rate of women participating in higher education is abysmally low. Maya has beaten these odds but has not forgotten about the obstacles many young women like her still face.

This International Women’s Day, I am celebrating the strength with which Maya has navigated her personal struggles and emerged as a successful, independent woman.

Maya was the second girl to leave her village in order to obtain a college degree. The first girl, Padma, was not so lucky. Thirty-five years ago, Padma left to study in another state. She excelled in school, but her scholastic achievements brought her negative attention from her male classmates and teachers. According to Maya, when Padma received the top grade in her class, outscoring the boy who was accustomed to being on top, he responded by collaborating with Padma’s teacher to poison her. Padma died, but her case was never published or brought to justice. Instead, the school covered up the incident by calling it a suicide or indigestion. When Padma’s village learned of this story, the tragedy turned into a cautionary tale for parents wanting to send their daughters to college.

But Maya’s parents were some of the first to not let Padma’s death scare them from giving their daughter an education. Even though Maya’s father had encouraged her to be independent and well-educated her whole life, the pressure from the community to hold her back was so great that her father wavered until the last second, when Maya was zipping up her suitcase.

“That first year at Lucknow University,” Maya told me as we got back on the road, “I was afraid to cross the street. I was a lion in my village, but in the city I was just a cat.” As a first year student she might have struggled with the English medium classes, but now Maya scolds me in perfect English about how I don’t eat enough potatoes or wear enough eyeliner.

Her confidence was growing as she began to excel in school, but soon after she left for college, Maya’s father fell ill and everything changed. The medical expenses were quickly draining the family’s resources, and her father had no way of paying for her tuition. The one uncle who could provide financial aid was unwilling to do so, figuring that sending a girl to college was a waste of money. Her father died the same day that she borrowed $200 from a friend to pay school fees. Maya was 19. For the next seven years, while working in the non-profit sector and earning her degrees, she became the sole provider for her family of five.

She eventually landed a fellowship at an NGO, where she had her first close contact with young girls living in urban slums. Part of her work involved conducting advocacy campaigns to try to mobilize support from parents and teachers to send local girls to school. Even though there are government welfare programs that fully subsidize school for these girls, there is still a significant gap between policy and reality. By the time her fellowship ended, she had helped 20 girls from that community go to school and felt empowered to continue her work in the women’s rights field.

Maya does similar work at the NGO where we work now and says that she has become a role model for the youth with whom she is organizing. Maya recently told me over coffee that, “We tell the girls that change begins with you. I don’t know how much they will change, but they will start to change.” Maya, who is the exception rather than the rule, is now training others to be the exception, too.

Maya’s story is an inspirational example of the kind of success Indian women can achieve. However, for every case in which women are afforded a quality education and a good career, there are far more women excluded from these possibilities. I admire Maya for her commitment to help women who have not been afforded the right promised to them under law. Emphasizing one success story, though, should not distract us from the broader conditions of inequality, discrimination and abuse common to the lives of many Indian women. It should only inspire us to work harder.

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