Take the Time to Look at the Squirrels

I had the good fortune to work for two decades at Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. Apart from the work and the work environment, the campus itself was a boon. 14 acres of both ‘groomed’ and ‘wild’ spaces. A variety of trees, undergrowth, lawns, water-body and the attendant birds, snakes, small mammals, rodents, butterflies, etc. etc.
IMG_20181217_114832We were an earnest and idealistic bunch. We had the benefit of mentoring by some of the wisest of people. One of them was Dr.PR Pisharoty, Father of Indian Meteorology and Remote Sensing. On one of his visits in the early days, he listened to all of us presenting our work and holding forth. With a gentle twinkle in his eyes, he told us: ‘You are all doing wonderful work. But I hope you don’t forget to take time off to look at the squirrels.’

We took that lesson to heart. Being immersed in nature at the workplace is a luxury few have today. But I think, looking back, that this made a difference to our work, our interactions and us as people and an organization. Being ‘distracted’ by a bird call in the middle of a meeting and the whole group rushing to look through the window or refer to ‘the Book’ (Salim Ali of course), broke up many a tension. Waiting for a monitor lizard to amble across the path as one rushed from one dept. to another was a good way to get a sense of ‘Nothing is that urgent. They have survived without rushing for millennia’. When ideas dried up, gazing out of the window at the squirrels chasing each other usually did the trick and the brain got unclogged. Feeding the fish at lunch brought people from unconnected work spaces together.

Did the campus make us more creative? More strongly bonded as teams? More lateral-thinking? More empathetic as people? I like to think so!

Business case for green campuses made! After all, today nothing can get approved without a business case! And by green campus, I don’t mean manicured lawns and potted plants. But a bit of wildness and a bit of wildlife!

–Meena

Illustration credit: CEE

Weaving Beautiful Tales

25 years ago, our friend Darshan Shah began a journey—a journey called Weavers Studio, a business set up with the aim of supporting and contemporising textile-based handcrafts in India. Today, as it celebrates its Silver Jubilee, it is an iconic brand.

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But even more important than Darshan’s success as an entrepreneur, may be her contribution to the knowledge and skill revival in India’s textile traditions, and the promotion of arts and crafts. Weaver Studio Archives are one of the finest collection of old Indian textiles, housing over 1200 rare and old samples. Their Centre for the Arts promotes performing and non-performing arts, and presents over a 100 events every year.

One of the significant contributions of Weavers Studio has been to the revival of interest in Baluchari.  Baluchari saris (and shawls and textiles) take their name from the village of Baluchar, from the Murshidabad region of Bengal. The village itself no longer exists. Probably washed away in some flood at some time. The weaving of these special saris is thought to have flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, and was generally done on silk, though cotton Balucharis were also woven. They are known to have been exhibited in the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London.

The distinguishing feature of Baluchari is the quirkiness of the motifs. Imagine having a hookah-smoking sahib reclining in an armchair on your pallu! Or an elephant bearing an Englishman and his wife walking across it. Or men on a steamer floating across it. Or a courtesan in a dance pose. You could also have scenes from Ramayana or Mahabharata of course.

Balucharis are fun, quirky and works of art. They are an invaluable part of our craft and textile tradition. Buy a Baluchari, own a treasure!

I am the proud possessor of a Baluchari which I bought in a Bengal State Emporium about 25 years ago (in pic). But it was a rare and lucky find, because when I went out again looking for another such, I could, for almost two decades not find one.

–Meena

 

I Have Met God—He’s a Bureaucrat

My God is a bureaucrat

In the best traditions of Indian bureaucracy

 

I pray and plead

But He has no time

For petty, individual sorrows and requests

Because He is looking

At the bigger picture

 

I rant and rave

Against the unfairness of the order of things

But His look tells me

That He can only worry about

The overall order of things

 

If you and I and a little ant

Feel aggrieved

That is really our problem

For the macro-indicators

Are showing a positive trend.

 

I try to make sense of things

But when I ask Him to explain

He tells me that it is not for me to understand

All these things are decided ‘at a higher level’

 

I try to get in touch when I need him

But He never responds

Maybe because He is in meetings

Or on tour

 

And so I have learnt

To cope with my problems

My tragedies, my questions

Because though

Right to Information is now an Act

God won’t respond if he doesn’t want to

And usually, he doesn’t.

 

–Meena

Naughty Nighty

A village in Andhra Pradesh has banned women from wearing nighties between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.! Women who breach this ban are threatened with a fine of Rs. 2000. And as if this display of patriarchy is not bad enough, women who ‘rat’ on other women committing this crime will get an award of Rs. 1000. So patriarchy also actively pushes women to spy on and report on each other.

When the police reached there to investigate, women refused to lodge a complaint, and some said that the ban was a good idea, and that in fact women themselves had mooted it. So the women in the village are either willing victims, or so intimidated by the environment that they dare not speak up.

Either way, scary.

But that got me to thinking as to why the ‘nighty’ is so popular. It is obviously fulfilling a huge felt need. I suspect (based on completely random, non-scientific observations!), that this is particularly more so in South India. In the North, the salwar-kameez is available as an option for practical working clothes. Maybe older women in the South find the ‘nighty’ closer to the sari and more acceptable than the ‘Punjabi’. The nighty is often worn with a dupatta or towel draped over the shoulders for modesty. Be that as it may, it does seem women want an option to the sari. So to sum up my observations and inferences, the looked-for attire should:

  1. Be full length
  2. Be flowy
  3. Not expose any skin
  4. Have a drape for the upper body
  5. Be comfortable enough to spend the whole day in
  6. Be convenient to work in.

Based on these observations, I do think that a designer who comes out with elegant designs that meet these criteria, would find any number of takers. Surely, with such a huge market waiting, someone can take up this challenge and make a killing! The dresses can be designed in a variety of fabrics and to fit various budgets. And then they would not be ‘nighties’ but perfectly comfortable and nice-looking ‘day-wear’. No question that no one has a right to dictate what women wear. But it is also an opportunity to design something that meets their needs and is not make-do.

–Meena

PS: An appropriate protest might be for 90 or 900 or 9000 women to descend on the AP village in broad daylight, clad in Nighties.

World Disability Day: December 3

The disabled are often called the most ignored minority.

2011 Census reports indicate that there are about 2.68 crore disabled people in India–2.21% of the population. But NGOs and others who work in this field feel that this is too conservative an estimate. According to them, the figure is more like 5-8% of the population.  World Bank data suggests the number is between 4 and 8 crore. And this is expected to increase steeply, as age-related disabilities grow and traffic accidents increase.

The most tragic part of this is that many of the disabilities in our country are preventable. A large number of mental and physical disabilities arise from lack of nutrition and proper health care for pregnant mothers and young children. Many irreversible disabilities are linked to poor nutrition of the mother—e.g., anemic conditions. Similarly deficiency of Vit. A in childhood may lead to blindness; deficiency of iodine may lead to mental retardation. Similarly, immunization coverage and disabilities are clearly correlated.

If infants and the very young are vulnerable, so are the old. Over 23% of visual impairment in India is due to cataract—a normal phenomenon associated with aging, and one which is correctable. But thousands in our country live without vision because they cannot access or afford the simple surgery required.

Other statistics which should disturb us: Close to 40% of school age children with disabilities are not in school. If the children do not go to school, they can never hope to be employable. This feeds the poverty-disability cycle.

In India, figures indicate that the number of disabled in employment actually fell between 1991 and 2002! Though there is legislation for 3% reservation in government sector, this is seldom fulfilled. And how can it ever be, if the disabled don’t get an education? If public transport and offices are not accessible to the disabled? If our own attitudes prevent us from employing the disabled?

On paper we have laws and policies for inclusivity in education, for reservation in jobs, for access to public spaces, etc., etc. But on the ground, there is little happening. The first barrier is in our minds—if we can truly accept that there are no ‘disabilities’, only ‘different abilities’, we may be able to see our way to building a more inclusive society. Just as I can’t sing, there are some who cannot speak! Just as I can’t dance, there are some who cannot walk! I don’t think of myself as any the less because of these lacks. Why then should I think of people who cannot speak or walk as different?

We need to translate attitude to action: Check if your child’s school has a policy for inclusive education, and if there are indeed differently-abled children. If not, gently bring it up in the next PTA meeting. Encourage your ward’s school or college to have traffic education sessions. Ensure that your own ward does not break traffic rules. Check your organization’s employment policy to see if there is anything about employing differently-abled people. If not, lobby for it! Spread the message for proper nutrition and immunization for pregnant women and young mothers. Support cataract operations through service organizations. Write to the managers of public spaces if they do not provide disability access.

Each of us may take a different route. But go on, make a resolve to make small difference on the 3rd of December!

–Meena

It’s Getting Hot, Hot, Hot!

Chilies have been on my mind since my visit to the Agriculture Mela last week, where this picture was taken by my friend. And then, another friend who went trekking to the Northeast brought me back the super-hot special chilies from there. The blog today is more an excuse to share the picture, than anything else! But now that we are on the topic, here goes:

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The chili is the fruit of a plant belonging to the genus capsicum of the family Solanaceae. Capsicum is aptly derived from the Greek word ‘Kapsimo’ meaning ‘to bite’. The plant originated in South America, probably in Peru, and was domesticated as early as 5000 B.C. Christopher Columbus carried chili seeds from South America to Spain in 1493, and from there they have spread across the world. They were introduced in South Asia in the late 15th/ early 16th century by the Portuguese, and today we cannot imagine any of our cuisines without them (except maybe Kerala!).

When we talk of the heat of chilies, a reference to the pungency is natural. But how is pungency measured? The Scoville scale is a measure of the pungency (spiciness/heat) of   spicy foods, as recorded in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). This is based on the concentration of capsaicin,  the alkaloid responsible for the ‘heat’.  The scale is named after its creator, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, whose 1912 method is known as the Scoville organoleptic test. Originally, the SHU rating was given based on this test, which got people to taste and rate. But obviously, this was quite subjective. Today, liquid chromatography is used. The unit of measurement remains SHU.

The hottest chili in the world is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion from Trinidad and Tobago. This pepper is rated at a 2,009,231 SHU.

India’s hottest, and World Number Four, is the Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper) from Nagaland. On the Scoville scale, this measures a whopping 1,041,427 SHU.

Some other special chilies of India:

Kashmiri Chili: Known more for its colour than its spice.

Guntur Chili: The Guntur Sannam S4 is the chili responsible for the spiciness of the famously spicy Andhra cuisine.

Birs’ Eye Chili Dhani: Grown in the Northeast, this tiny chili packs a very spicy punch.

Kanthari Chili: These chilies grow in Kerala and become white when mature.

Mundu Chili: Grown in Tamilnadu and Andhra, they are small and round, with a thin skin. The are not too spicy, but have a unique flavour.

Jwala Chili: Grown primarily in Gujarat.

Byadagi Chili: This chili grown in Karnataka are long and have a thin skin. When dried, they have a crinkly appearance.

Maybe next time you are at a restaurant and want to sound very well-informed, you can ask the waiter what the SHU level of a dish is!

–Meena

PS: Thanks Anu, for the pic, and Sudha for the chilies.

 

Festival of Farming

20181117_120113_resizedThe annual Krishi Mela is an event Bangaloreans look forward to. Organized in November every year, the 3-day Mela showcases the latest in agriculture and livestock related developments—from technologies, to equipment and tools, to new varieties of seeds, to green farming.

First a word about the Gandhi Krishi Vignana Kendra (GKVK), the venue of the mela. This amazing 1300+ acre campus has a hoary history. More than a century ago in 1899, Her Excellency Maharani Vani Vilasa, Regent of Mysore donated 30 acres of land for an Experimental Agricultural Station at Hebbal, which initiated research projects related to agriculture. In 1963, the Government of Mysore decided to establish University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) along the lines of Land Grant College system of USA and passed the University of Agricultural Sciences Bill. It granted 1300 acres to the GKVK Campus.

UAS was inaugurated by Dr Zakir Hussain, then Vice President of India, on 21st Aug 1964. Speaking at the event, he set the institute a lofty mandate: “By bringing about significant improvement in every phase of rural life, by much needed change in methods of production, by influencing the whole outlook of the rural community and rural home, by giving them a new vision and new hope, this university will be able to make great contribution to national welfare”.

The Krishi Mela sees visitation in the lakhs—from farmers to students to urbanites interested in agriculture, it is a joyous (though somewhat hot and tiring) occasion.

For farmers, it is an opportunity to see the latest advancements in the field of agriculture; to interact with agro-business companies and see demonstrations of agricultural implements; to get advice from university researchers on best methods of farming for a particular crop; and be exposed to practices like biological control of insects, organic farming in polyhouses, setting up biogas plants and extracting biodiesel.

For a layperson like me, it is an occasion to buy seeds and gardening implements; get some advice on how to look after plants; get to know something about the complexities of farming; marvel at things like a 70 kg bunch of bananas and a magnificent Gir bull; and gawk at sights like a drone which can be used for spraying pesticides. Also to partake of a traditional lunch (Menu: ragi muddu, palya, rice-rasam, curd-rice and a sweet) at Rs.50!

For me, the best thing about bringing such a mela into the heart of a city like Bangalore is the value it has as a reminder to us of who feeds us, and the challenges they face to do so!

Waste not…..

RecycleEarth_mediumNot many years ago, people returning from the US or England would relate shocking stories of how people there threw away everything—from TVs to beautiful containers to cars to old clothes. And we used to pride ourselves that in India, we re-cycled and re-used everything. Horlicks bottles were used to store pickles or dals. Bournvita tins became containers for masala powders. Bed sheets became pillow covers, which became shopping bags.

But now, ‘we’ are ‘them’!

Have you looked into your garbage bin recently? Have you noted how quickly it fills up? With changing lifestyles, we are buying more and more, and throwing away more and more. Today, In metro cities in India, an individual produces an average of 0.8 kg/ waste/ person daily.

India produces about 65 m tonnes of urban waste annually, out of which 5.6m tonnes consist of plastic waste, 0.17m constitute of biomedical waste, 7.90m tonnes constitute hazardous waste while 15 lakh ton is e-waste.

You may not want to do the exercise of researching the contents of your dustbin, so here are some facts. On the average, garbage is made up of 35% organic material, 30% paper, 12% construction related wastes, 9% plastics, 6% glass, 3% metal, and then miscellaneous.

The problem with garbage is that though you may throw it ‘away’, there is really no ‘away’! It is out of your house, but on the street. It is off the street but in a dumper. It is out of the dumper, but in a landfill. And at each stage, there are problems.

Just to understand what the problem is, just looks at the facts and figures below.

  • Banana peel – 3 to 4 weeks
  • Paper bag — 1 month
  • Cotton rag — 5 months
  • Wool sock — 1 year
  • Cigarette butt — 2 to 5 years
  • Leather shoe — 40 to 50 years
  • Rubber sole (of the shoe) — 50 to 80 years
  • Aluminum can (soft drink can) — 200 to 500 years
  • Plastic jug — 1 million years
  • Styrofoam cup – unknown–forever?
  • glass bottle – unknown–forever?

So what can we do as individuals? The mantra is ‘Reduce, re-use, recycle’.

REDUCE

Don’t create waste in the first place! Buy only what you need. Use all that you buy. Avoid heavily packaged products. Avoid disposable items like paper plates and plastic spoons. Buy the largest size package for those items that you use often.

REUSE

Reuse items – use them over and over until they are completely worn out. Borrow or share items you don’t use very often. Donate unwanted items. Repair items, instead of throwing away and buying new. Refill bottles. Plastic bags can be used for many times over. Use your imagination, not the trash can!

RECYCLE

Recycle means taking something old and making it into something new. Old newspapers, plastic bottles, glass bottles and jars, aluminum and steel cans can all be recycled. Sell these to the ‘kabadi wallah’.  Not only does it keep items out of the landfill, recycling conserves natural resources. For example, making newspaper out of old newspaper saves a valuable natural resource – trees.

And compost, compost, compost!

Think about it and see if you want to make these your New Year Resolutions!

–Meena

A Crusader for Women’s Health

Ashoka Fellow Indu Capoor is Founder-Director of Centre for Health, Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (CHETNA), based in Ahmedabad, India, an organization she started when she was just 23 years old. This was in the early 1980s when the young nutritionist had a vision of an India where the health and nutrition of marginalised women and children mattered. So when she was asked by a multilateral funding agency to write a proposal, she wrote a note going well beyond a project. She proposed an institution that would work as a bridge between policy and practice. And CHETNA, or Centre for Health, Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness, was born. Chetna means awareness in Hindi.

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Indu is an old friend and a senior colleague. Yesterday, I met up with her for an hour and we chatted about many things, including the subject closest to her heart—woman and child health. Here is the interview.

Me: Indu, you have been in this field for over 3 decades. What still remains the major challenge to women and child health.

Indu: Women’s self-esteem, self-confidence and agency. Somehow you can link everything back to these. Poverty is of course a major issue, but social practices and beliefs are as significant.

For instance, take anaemia. About 50% women in India are anaemic and this is the major cause of underweight children being born, and other childhood problems. There is a lot of focus on child health, but I think we have to focus on the root cause—the health of the mother. If we fix that effectively, the problem is solved. But it is still true that women do not get enough food, or enough nutrition. Their food is not a priority. A young girl, at her in-laws place, has no say on what she eats. During pregnancy, it is important that a woman eats to her liking. But is that really possible? And the women themselves believe that they are the last priority.

I can never get over the fact that at my wedding, one of the vows I was supposed to take was that I would first ensure that my husband, children and guests were fed before I ate! I obviously refused to take the vow. But this is how deeply it is ingrained. We have to socialize boys and girls to understand that nutrition of young girls is extremely important.

Me: Have you seen any positive changes?

Indu: Yes, I do see changes in women’s confidence, mobility, decision making space etc. in urban areas, and the borderline poor. But not in the really poor.

In fact, ‘livelihood development’ and outside work sometimes adversely affect these women because their work burden increases hugely. No one else in the house shares domestic work, and in addition, she has to go out and work. This has implications for her health and well-being.

Me: This is worrying. Any other such concern areas?

Indu: Yes. Spiralling food prices, pollution, market forces, cost of medicines, loss of food diversity, all of these have huge implications for nutrition in general and women’s nutrition and health in particular.

Me: What is one critical action which can help in this situation?

Indu: I think we must consider each and every policy from a gender angle. We must ask: ‘how will this affect the health and well-being of women, especially marginalized and poor women’? And only then can we finalize the policy.

–Meena

For more: Read ‘A Shared Destiny: My Journey with CHETNA’ published by Academic Foundation is about Indu’s journey in of 3+ decades in the field of woman and child health.

Speaking of Statues

Towering statues are the flavour of the month, so it seems appropriate to talk of statues to one of India’s towering personalities. I am not sure if there is (or it is even possible to have), a census of statues that so generously dot India’s landscape. But if there were to be one, my feeling is that the place for top numbers would be close-run thing between Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar. In fact, the latter may win. (One cannot say if the position will be held for long though, because if we were to include gods, it seems to me, the number of Hanuman statues may soon overtake that of any human!)

But coming back to the topic. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the tall leader who probably did more to change the social landscape of India than anyone else, is commemorated with statues across India—big ones, small ones; proportionate ones, ones completely out of proportion; well-made ones, not so well-made ones. But three common threads across almost all of them: (1) They are most often blue in colour, (2) Dr. Ambedkar is always be shown wearing a suit, and (3) they will depict Dr. Ambedkar in one of two poses.

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Intrigued, I did a little surfing and found (mainly from journalistic sources), some interesting information:

Why Blue?

Dr. Ambedkar started a party known as Scheduled Caste Federation (whose name was later changed to Republican Party of India). The colour of the party was blue — Royal blue to be more specific. It is said that he choose blue as the Dalit colour, to set it apart from all other parties. With this strong association of the colour blue with Dr. Ambedkar, his clothes are always shown as blue (it seems even in real life, for the last 20-30 years of his life, he most often wore blue).

Why a Suit?

Dr. Ambedkar was a symbol of struggle and success of Dalits. His status as a teacher and his rise to the high level of Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee were unimaginable in those days and were empowering beyond measure. And Western clothing–the suit–was a part of this re-imagining of the possibilities. His wearing a suit had a huge impact on the marginalized and oppressed, a matter of pride. And hence, he is always shown wearing one in his statues.

The Poses

Sculptor Vinay Wagle explains in a magazine article (Outlook) that there are two main poses of Ambedkar statues: (1) the ‘lecture’ pose, wherein left hand is behind and the right hand raised with the finger pointing forward. This is supposed to symbolize his teacher status. (2) the ‘Parliament’ pose, where he has a book in his left hand, and his right hand is raised, symbolizing his position as the Father of our Constitution.

He was not only a lawyer, but he had Ph.D from Columbia University and another one from the London School of Economics. As well as two honorary one! He was Principal of the Govt. Law College Bombay and Chairman of the Governing Board of Ramjas College University of Delhi. Justifiable indeed, the ‘lecturer pose’!
He was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn, was India’s first Law Minister and chaired the Constitution Drafting Committee. The Constitution drafted under his leadership has been called ‘first and foremost a social document’. ‘ The majority of India’s constitutional provisions are either directly aimed at furthering the aim of social revolution or attempt to foster this revolution by establishing conditions necessary for its achievement. Justifiable indeed, the ‘Parliament pose’!

Recently I have seen a huge, very well crafted statue of Dr. Ambedkar, sitting in a statue-making yard. But it is golden! My friends tell me they are also seeing more of these. They do look better than many a blue one, but I cannot help wondering about the spirit!

–Meena