Here are daily blog entries by members of an ASAP Students delegation to Delhi, India. They describe their experiences meeting with Delhi-area students and helping them launch the first ASAP Students chapter in India, touring slum communities with local leaders and anti-poverty activists, meeting Indian academic campaigners, think-tank staff and local residents facing deep deprivation and social exclusion.
Day 1 – Monday, July 16, 2012
- Meeting with ASAP Delhi Students
- Presentation by Campaign Against Pre-birth Elimination of Females
- Visit to North Delhi slum community “Khilauna Bagh”
(Post by Heather Owen, Vice Chair of ASAP Students Birmingham Chapter)
ASAP Delhi Students Meeting: Our first morning in Delhi began with a warm welcome from all the wonderful ASAP Delhi students and ASAP India’s Chair, Dr. Ashok Acharya of Delhi University. The core of Delhi students who have worked alongside Dr. Acharya to launch the students delegation for ASAP India were some of the most committed and insightful people I have ever met, who will no doubt become the individuals who will change India in future years.
Suparna Priyadarshini, Santosh Kumar, Mannu Singh, Bhavna Sharma and Abhishek Choudhary helped to organise and coordinate our visit to India. They arranged presentations and meetings with some of Delhi’s most established and important organisations and campaigns that were dealing with pressing issues facing Indian society today. Thanks to their help and effort, and with the support of Dr. Acharya, we were able to learn and develop a unique understanding of Indian issues relating to poverty in complex ways, from food security to the pre-birth elimination of females.
Meeting with the Campaign Against the Pre-birth Elimination of Females (CAPF): We gathered to meet academic/activist Bijayalaxmi Nanda, and Sneha Bannerjee, a dedicated volunteer of the campaign. With cultural norms and customs ingrained in the complexities of Indian life, having a baby girl is often viewed as a burden and is mourned by families, due to the stigma associated with females and continuing customs around the woman’s family providing a substantial dowry at marriage. As such, the issue of sex selective abortions of female foetuses is prominent across India’s communities and is now emerging in all classes from the poor to the very rich in Indian society. This crisis is made even more alarming by the fact that gender ratios across India are declining for girls, especially between the ages of 0-6 years old. (See related article in ASAP’s World Poverty Forum online magazine) Bijayalaxmi described young girls today as an ‘endangered’ group who are becoming a lost generation.
Our group was told how sex-selective abortion is made even easier today by the development of new technologies, leading to more parents choosing to terminate the pregnancies of females. This illustrates the interconnected nature of development issues in India, which are affected by culture, gender and class. At the source of this issue lies in the lack of value and self-worth that parts of Indian society consider women to possess. Females are often viewed by the absence of economic gain they bring to their families due to dowry payments, and their roles as housewives and mothers – non-wage workers. The campaign is fighting to dignify women and empower them in society through educating younger generations and promoting the valuing of their efforts and work both in the home and work place. Alongside this, they aim to train health professionals, enabling them break against normalized practices of sex-selective abortions and stop future atrocities towards female babies. Despite struggling against generations of cultural norms and values, the campaign is reaching women in India, who are breaking away from customs and keeping their girls, illustrating the braveness, courage and strength of many women across India.
Visit to North Delhi “Khilauna Bagh” community: Delhi reflects the extremes of life in India that are immediately obvious to any newcomer. As we drove down one of Delhi’s major roads, I noticed men sleeping without shelter on the street in front of one of Delhi’s luxury hotels. I am not aiming to be negative, but simply to highlight the stark inequality in India society today. These extremes were made even more real by our short but eye-opening visit to one of Delhi’s large shanty towns or ‘slum’ communities. (Slum is an official term used by government agencies and the word used by residents themselves. It describes a community where residents don’t hold title to their homes or land and are at general risk of forced removal. Some communities have official ‘slum’ designation from the government, entitling them to some limited water and other services).
Known as “Khilauna Bagh”, this slum held a population of 8,000, living under very difficult conditions. It is surrounded by a prestigious public school on one side and up-market apartments on the other, where many in the community work as domestic cleaners and maids. A leader of the community, Surendra Singh, showed us around, explaining that it was one of Delhi’s more developed slums, with dwellings constructed from brick, wood and metal and some form of water sanitation and pump systems in place. Despite this, many community members face severe challenges. Some live in small dwellings that house over 20 people. Others had suffered from severe flooding during the summer monsoon season, causing them to lose the few possessions they had. Sanitation was minimal, and even very basic health care was out of the reach of most.
Despite the harsh conditions, children filled the narrow streets playing with makeshift toys and smiling, truly illustrating the ability to make the most of sometimes the worst situation. The reality of life in this community was that people worked hard to live, from long hours cycling people on their rented rickshaws to children having to leave school at a young age to work. It really made me realise how strong and determined these people were.
Generations lived in this slum, which was established over 70 years ago. One village elder explained how things had never changed. His parents had lived there and grown old; he was now living and growing old in the same slum, and his children were following in the same footsteps. The conditions today, he said, are similar to the period during the pre-independence era (pre-1947), illustrating that, despite India’s massive economic rise and development, there are large pockets of the population that have been and are still being left behind.
Visit to Nirankari Mission Museum and Park, Delhi: Our final stop of the day was to the Nirankari Mission Museum and Park in Delhi a spiritual place for many that follow the Indian Nirankari movement. Here I want to pass on a quotation from the museum exhibits that summed up how we felt about the issues that we as human have created for ourselves and are still trying to fix: “We have learnt to walk on the moon but we have not yet mastered walking on Earth.”
Day 2: Tuesday, July 17, 2012
- Meeting with advocates of the “Let Girls Be Born” Campaign, accompanied by Bijayalaxmi Nanda of the University of Delhi
- Visit to the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights’ office
- Visit to Baljeet Nagar slum community
(Post by Amandeep Ahuja, Communications Officer, ASAP Students Birmingham Chapter)
The second day of the week-long trip to New Delhi was inspiring in that it covered the aspects of gender and caste discrimination while enlightening the students from the Birmingham chapter about the traditional belief system that has shaped the Indian values and culture. The ASAP understanding of gender discrimination in India was further deepened by our visit to the site of the campaign “Let Girls Be Born” advocated by Bijayalaxmi Nanda of the University of Delhi. The political impact of caste discrimination, on the other hand, was made comprehensible by our visit to the establishment of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, followed by an enlightening-albeit unsettling-tour of a slum community where thousands of Dalit persons lived.
Day 2 took off with an interesting and fascinating start with what may have been considered a regular affair by the local people. However, University of Delhi PhD student, Suparna Priyadarshini (later to become the Chair of the India Chapter of ASAP), revealed that the incident was new to her imagination as well-our bus being sandwiched between two public buses. The passenger side mirror was ripped off, but no one was injured. The day did not, however, lose its element of amazement.
Upon finally making it to the district of the “Let Girls Be Born” program, the group was greeted by a spectacular array of young boys and girls, and women, all gathered in a home to edify us on the pressing issues surrounding the wider feminist circle. The most striking feature of the gathering was the presence of young children–particularly the young boys who seemed to be actively involved in the cause for recognition of the rights and needs of the opposite sex in a society where men stereotypically appear to be less supportive of recognition of women’s issues. The enthusiasm of everyone from the future-building generation of India is quite inspiring.
The meeting began with a short introduction of the organisations that the women were collectively involved with; all of these engaged in meetings, rallies, and other demonstrations to fight against domestic violence, and raise awareness about issues pertaining to gender discrimination and the resultant fall in sex ratio in the country. Some of the groups involved include “Sankalp”, “Lakshya”, “Kraanti”, “Jaagrit”. While adult members are involved in direct interventionist policies, children are involved in street plays to influence the society in a light-hearted, yet eye-opening manner. The message to the public was an attempt to highlight the significance of the girl child and it was seen that resistance to this message was shown by families who rejected the idea of celebration of the girl child. However, changes were reported to have been observed in the mindset of the women targeted in the process of pre-birth elimination of females, and in some cases, the traditional belief system of families. It was also understood that men have now reached an understanding of women’s rights and the importance of the message reaching out to doctors has also been highlighted by the campaign leaders and the media.
An encouraging change in the community observed in the past year has been the growing resistance to sex-selective abortion and sex determination. This was displayed by the case of an advocate of the campaign whose mindset traveled through the phases of considering sex-selective abortion as an acceptable and valid act, to one where she managed to convince her own niece about the moral wrong embedded in not just the act, but also a society preaching sex discrimination.
Another interesting case highlighted was that of the birth of the granddaughter of a woman named Premvati, who had gained her reputation as a brave activist of feminist rights and issues by “playing around” with rituals and customs. Premvati did what few women from a relatively feminist-oppressive society could imagine ever happening — performing the celebratory customs for the birth of a boy in the family, to celebrate the birth of her granddaughter. This rather controversial act is viewed as a bold one, but also one that promotes gender equality in an unconventional fashion.
The rather eye-opening discussion was followed by a street play performance, led by the children involved in the campaign, showcasing the issues of sex-selective abortion, the falling sex ratio, gender discrimination in the work place, and others, in a light-hearted and entertaining manner. The light-heartedness of the day did not continue, however, as we then had an eye-opening dialogue on Dalit human rights and their violation in India with staff from the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, based in Delhi. In order to sympathise with the sensitive issue of Dalit rights, it is essential to understand how the issue came about in the first place, how it has evolved from its state of birth in history, and how the current Indian society treats it.
The term “Dalit,” meaning ‘broken people,’ is now commonly used to refer to former untouchables. According to the traditional Hindu system of caste, individuals have broadly been placed into the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (traders) and the Shudra (artisan) caste. Far below this hierarchy, and outside the castes, are the “Untouchables” or the Dalit class of people. As of the latest statistical findings, about 16 percent of the Hindu population is classified as being Dalit, and the great majority of that population earns less than $2 a day. While “untouchability” was abolished by the Indian constitution under Article 17, Campaign staff highlighted ways in which practices of caste-based discrimination persist, by way of denial, restriction, forced occupation, and violence. Further, the Dalit woman faces discrimination not only on the basis of caste, but also in gender-based poverty.
Cases of discrimination are observed in several walks of life, in both the public and private spheres. For instance, a Special Component Plan in the Budget of the Indian Economy was set aside for the purpose of Dalit upliftment. As related by Campaign staff, however, 745 million rupees of the Dalit component were found to have been diverted away from them to the development of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India. In terms of the Dalit living, the condition seems to be worsening rather than improving when considering the factor of Dalit slums: firms often grab the land that would have been converted to, or used as a slum, rendering the Dalit population as the urban poor. Dalit residences are also often found to be located in places largely prone to natural calamities.
Sanjeev Kumar of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights led us on a visit to the slum community of Baljeet Nagar, where the majority of residents are Dalits. Inhabited by thousands of people, the slum is home to a one-room Christian church (common in Dalit communities, where many convert from Hinduism), a small convenience store, and a shoemaker, as well as scores of homes constructed by residents from bricks and boards, most with corrugated tin roofs. The community had been rebuilt within the year, after it was demolished by Delhi officials. Sanjay and his colleagues continued to fight a legal battle to establish the residents’ right to dwell on their current site.
Problems of sanitation and water prevail in this slum, with water being provided by officials only every 15-20 days. Poverty has been seen as not the natural condition of the people, but as a result of caste-discrimination. The most striking feature of the slum was the carefree attitude of the children who seemed to have adopted their way of life as the only way of life. It is the parents and other residents who know of the existence of the world outside the slum. The day ended with that trip to that community, but we knew that the impact of the visit would last for much longer.
Day 3: Wednesday, July 18, 2012
- Visit to Agra, Uttar Pradesh
(Post by Sonia Khella, ASAP Students Birmingham Vice Chair)
The trip saw an early 6:30 am start, but still the Delhi air was humid. There is something quite calming about early morning Delhi, although the streets still bustle and the drivers still have no fear, the coolness of the weather subdues you into a lull of calm. Something I had not yet felt in Delhi. The weather seems to be the only constant in the city. Today was to be a typical tourist day to Agra, home of the legendary Taj Mahal monument, but also a journey of learning with some of our colleagues from the new ASAP Students Delhi chapter, who rode with us.
At the first stop, Fatehpur Sikri Mosque, we were greeted by street vendors selling memorabilia. Even here the sheer underbelly of poverty in Delhi became evident. But at times like this, like many experienced in Delhi you find yourself in somewhat of a moral battle of the mind. Do I buy this or should I buy food for them? But where does it all go to? Who is the middleman? So by walking off what did I achieve? Well, it just confirmed the need for a thorough understanding of the complex issue of poverty; this alone reinforced the reason why we were in Delhi. This remained an ongoing issue throughout our trip, the urgency for the vendors to sell and the urgency in our minds to conclude the best course of action.
Fatehpur Sikri Mosque was built in the 16th century by Emperor Akbar. The red uniform architecture of this UNESCO site was simply excellent. Here we obtained a rather enthusiastic guide, and we were assured this was not a hoax to lure us into the gift shops! But the time soon came to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal. We travelled to it from the car park by horse rickshaw. At first, yes, this was a fun way of traveling, until another moral battle arrived: the horses looked malnourished and, in all honesty, extremely tired. The Taj Mahal, however was nothing short of an architectural marvel. The actual beauty of the monument is beyond words and photographs. Only once you are standing opposite do you truly understand the magnitude of the site. The Taj was built for the Mughal emperor’s third wife and stood for his love for her. This love really brings the monument alive. Overall, the visit of a lifetime!
The four-hour journey home will be one of the most memorable parts of the entire trip. We stopped at a road side ‘Dhaba,’ or open-air restaurant. Here, we were exposed to wonderful food, as well as a variety of violations to health and safety acts everywhere, with a combination of running rabbits, acrobatic mice and cockroaches. Nothing should surprise you in this city! But overall, it was a wonderful day full of myriad experiences and learning opportunities.
Day 4, Thursday, July 19, 2012
- ASAP Students Delhi chapter launch
- Meeting with ASAP Chair Thomas Pogge
- Visit to Rajiv Gandhi Institute
(Post by Joshua Lindsey-Turner, Past Chair of ASAP Students Birmingham Chapter)
After three hectic days of meetings, presentations and visits, we settle down to meet Indian students in the heart of Delhi University’s bustling campus. We’re here for the official launch of ASAP Students Delhi chapter — an exciting day for us all. Spirits are high despite the souring temperatures as we sit down with teachers, academics and students from across India.
Meeting with ASAP Students in the UK never failed to leave me enthused as to what we could achieve together. Seeing the energy, passion and dedication on the faces of our Indian colleagues brought these feelings back three fold. After a brief introduction we sit down at 10.30 to hear from a panel of poverty experts including the economist Dr. Utsa Patnaik. Dr. Patnaik questions the methodology the government of India uses to measure the extent of poverty in rural and urban areas. Both Indian and Chinese governments consistently point to figures showing reductions in poverty whilst simultaneously reporting decreases in food productivity, points out Patnaik. According to her figures, the top few percent of the Indian population have enjoyed a massive increase in wealth, whilst the bottom 80 percent have suffered a massive reduction in living standards.
Corruption, deregulation and exposure to international markets have resulted in a nutritional deficit, which means that 40 percent of Delhi’s population are obese whilst 92 percent of those living in urban slums are unable to meet their basic nutritional needs, the speakers argued. Spurred by these shocking figures delegates and Indian students enthusiastically begun discussing how ASAP could leverage change in India. We discussed exposing the poverty that those living in slums face on a daily basis, would it be possible to do this in a sensitive and meaningful way, we asked. Other students suggested bringing these issues to the Indian government, with enough students officials would sit up and take notice we argued.
The launch itself was an energetic affair with students agreeing amongst themselves the roles they would be best suited to. In total, 14 members came forward to fill ASAP Students Delhi committee positions, more than twice as many as we expected. That feelings that meeting with ASAP students in the UK used to invoked in me remained. Here we had a group of students dedicated to resolving the problems their own society faces, it was humbling.
After the launch we settled down for a celebratory Dominos pizza and a discussion with ASAP Chair Professor Thomas Pogge. The irony of eating pizza, a symbol of Western decadence, after hearing how 80 percent of Indian’s in Delhi’s slums struggle to meet their basic nutritional needs, was not lost on me and the familiar feeling, which had haunted me whenever I considered the brute luck of my affluence, returned.
Professor Pogge reminded us how students of his generation had forced businesses and governments to withdraw from South Africa and end apartheid, and how students across the world had stood up to America and demanded an end to the needless killing of the Vietnamese people. Since studying Pogge’s work on the Health Impact Fund and his vision for just global institutions I have held him in the highest esteem, and so to meet him in the flesh was an experience I won’t quickly forget.
After an inspirational few hours we were bundled into a car and taken to the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, an independent think tank named for the former Prime Minister (1984-89), who was assassinated in 1991. This building felt unique. I was reminded of a brand new development in London or Brussels, rather than a building in the heart of Delhi. We met with staff, researchers and the institute’s director, the sense that this place was unique within Indian politics continued. Here we met a group of people assured of India’s position in the world and ready to spearhead the world’s next big social change. If India is to transform the lives of the millions who have been left behind during its economic reforms, institutions such as the Rajiv Gandhi Institute will become increasingly salient.
On cue we were joined by a host of fresh-faced parliamentary researchers the institute had recently trained. As we discussed ASAP, the morning’s launch and our plans for the future I was struck by a thought: the people in this room, Birmingham students, Indian students and parliamentary researchers, represented a new political generation sensitive to issues surrounding poverty in a way that would surely shape our careers in an immeasurable way. In ten years’ time I hope we will look back at these meetings and appreciate their importance. Only through such dialogue and collaboration can we hope to tackle the myriad of problems our generation faces.
Day 5: Friday, July 20, 2012
- Newspaper interviews
- JNU visit
(Post by Shabaana Kidy, Liaison Officer, ASAP Students Birmingham)
Imagine trying to describe the feel of fresh snow below your feet on a cold winter morning to a desert Bedouin in the Sahara, and multiply that twofold. That reflects my feeling as I attempt to sum up our ASAP experiences on the final day.
Friday was a big day, as we were contacted a reporter from The Times of India, one of India’s leading newspapers, who had heard about ASAP and wanted to write about the student delegation and the formation of the ASAP India Students Chapter. A couple of ASAP-ers from our delegation as well as the ASAP India students spoke to him. After a good hour of questions, story-telling and photo exchanging, we parted ways and rushed off for our final visit of the trip – to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), named for post-independence India’s first prime minister and located one hour from Delhi University.
At once, on arriving at JNU, we noticed an entirely different dynamic to the university campus. Almost every building we passed by was painted with political messages and images, signaling a history of student dynamism and activism and reflecting standpoints from across the political spectrum. This was a happening place — a hub of student activism.
The students at JNU certainly reflected the energy and life that the campus demonstrated. Dr Luis Cabrera from the ASAP UK delegation delivered a presentation on ASAP globally, its aims and objectives of utilizing academic research as a means to practical action for addressing poverty. Students were impressed with the idea of what ASAP represented, and were at the same time willing to be positively critical, offering constructive feedback. One PhD student at the university confidently raised her hand and spoke of the danger that visiting shanty towns could potentially bring. She argued that it was essential that this was not to become some kind of ‘slum tourism’ that would take the agency away from those who live in such neighbourhoods. It was a real interesting point made – one that ASAP had before discussed as all approaches to poverty alleviation must recognise and uphold the dignity of people.
We spoke to her some more at the end, explained our approach of ensuring that visits to shanty towns were arranged collectively with the people we were visiting, and involved interaction in the form of interviews between us. With any form of work, openness is essential. We try our utmost to work hard with our counterparts across the world to contribute to the field of poverty alleviation, and at the same time, we should never be closed to criticism. Critical voices are such an essential part of any successful organization as they cause the organization to continually assess and reassess its work and therefore result in a strong, well-informed organization that is in touch with reality and in touch with the people it seeks to help. We hope that ASAP can be just this.
Following the Q&A session, we made our way to the student bookshop and excitedly made our purchases of books (as a delegation composed of 5 students and a lecturer would) that are not as widely circulated in the UK.
We stopped for lunch and were met with a young girl – who couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, and who was holding a newborn baby in her arms, her other free arm outstretched asking for food. I couldn’t help but think of a friend of mine back in the UK who recently had given birth to a baby girl. Before the baby arrived, both my friend and her husband busily made preparations for the baby – a new room painted in pink and white, clothes, a cot, diapers, small soft toys – you name it – anything to make the baby as comfortable as possible. Now flash back to New Delhi – this baby girl was fast asleep, and completely unaware of her situation. This to me represented the crux of our trip and the urgency of dealing with poverty in a serious way.
Professor Thomas Pogge, in his brief address to us on Thursday, had spoken about how there are enough resources in the world to accommodate every person’s needs – but we’re not utilising the resources we have to eradicate poverty. The generation before ours did much damage to the world, and it is now time for us to reverse this.
Quite simply, we need to do a better job.
Massive thanks to the University of Birmingham Alumni who made this trip possible, to Dr. Luis Cabrera who arranged much of the trip, student delegation leader Joshua Lindsey-Turner, Dr. Ashok Acharya of Delhi University and his students Suparna Priyadarshini and Santosh Kumar who rushed around to arrange our itinerary in addition to Thursday’s fantastic ASAP India Student Chapter launch. The trip was filled with moments of happiness and sadness, moments of laughter, and moments of reflection and simple gratitude. We the Birmingham Student Chapter eagerly look forward to working with ASAP India Students, to learn from one another and to collaborate on efforts.