XDR: Tuberculosis 2.0

By Lauren Rudser (class of 2009)

MUMBAI, India, January 2009—A hard-to-cure strain of Tuberculosis, Extensively Drug Resistant Tuberculosis, or XDR-TB, a growing problem globally, and particularly problematic in Mumbai, India. Communicable from a single cough, people living in the cramped quarters of Mumbai’s slums, which lack in general hygiene, are at a high risk to contracting XDR. And once contracted, the patient faces a long, painful treatment of drugs and sometimes even surgery – that is, if they can pay for the expensive medicines and hospital visits. In this video we look at the effects XDR has on the patient and their family, as well as what the Indian government is doing to cure the sick and contain the problem.

[iframe_loader width=”100%” height=”500″ src=’http://www.youtube.com/embed/zLlEurGCR54′]

Commute in Bombay Deadly for Thousands

By Andrew Strickler, for the San Francisco Chronicle (class of 2005)

Photo by Mimi Chakarova, for the San Francisco Chronicle

MUMBAI, India, November 12, 2004On a muggy evening, Dipak Gandhi stood on a pedestrian walkway at Andheri Station, watching throngs of commuters push in and out of jam-packed cars on India’s most congested suburban railway.

“People go mad,” said Gandhi, president of the Bombay Suburban Passengers’ Association, an 800-member organization he founded in 1980 to lobby railway officials for improvements. “Every day, this is their ritual. Or should I say their punishment?”

Bombay, also known as Mumbai, is a city of 16 million inhabitants, of whom 6 million ride the city’s three main lines daily — more riders than all of New York City’s subways, buses, trains and ferries combined. Trains designed to hold 1,700 passengers carry as many as 4,700 during peak hours in a bone-crushing 1.4 bodies per square foot of space.

As a result, some 3,500 passengers, or 10 a day, are killed annually in grisly accidents. Some are crushed to death by fellow riders or under speeding trains after falling out of doors that are typically left open to accommodate more riders. Others are killed by moving trains while crossing tracks to avoid crowded pedestrian walkways.

Bombay’s trains are a far cry from New Delhi’s new $1.5 billion futuristic cars. Passengers in the capital use smart cards or smart tokens to ride the spotlessly clean Delhi Rail Metro, which will open the city’s first underground rail link next month.

But in Bombay, most commuters have little choice but to use the 79-year- old train system. Because Bombay streets are typically clogged during peak hours, trains are the only way to get home or to work on time.

Read the rest of the story, published in the San Francisco Chronicle

India’s Railway Children

By Andrew Strickler, for The Christian Science Monitor (class of 2005)

Andrew Strickler reporting.

BOMBAY, India, August 4, 2004—At Mumbai Central station in Bombay, a thousand tired passengers disembark from an overnight train. Businessmen with briefcases, barefoot laborers, and wealthy families followed by luggage- toting servants make their way through crowds of waiting passengers seated on the station’s marble floor, toward a swarm of taxis outside.

As they disperse, a group of about 25 young people remains behind. Ranging in age from 10 to 20, they are among the permanent residents of Mumbai Central. For them – and countless other children across India who have no other place to live – the station is much more than a transit point; it is an escape from a troubled home, a meager livelihood, and a veil of protection from the chaotic streets of overcrowded Bombay (Mumbai).

On a sweltering May afternoon, Siraj, who has wavy black hair and the taut muscles of a luggage porter, tells his story as he waits to unload a train that is already six hours late. Nearly a year ago, he hopped a train 1,100 miles away in Calcutta after his mother, overwhelmed by his father’s illness, kicked him out. “I just got on the train and thought I would find work,” he says.

Siraj came to Bombay because that was where the train was headed. He stayed because he had nowhere else to go.

It is difficult to estimate the number of children like Siraj who live in Bombay’s stations; their mobility and the overwhelming number of homeless defy surveys. UNICEF estimated in 1994 – the latest year for which figures are available – that India has 11 million homeless children, with a significant percentage living in urban areas.

An estimated 30 unaccompanied children arrive at the city’s 125 train stations every day, according to Aasara, a nonprofit organization that supports Bombay’s homeless children. They’re attracted by the perception that there must be jobs available in the country’s most prosperous city, and also by the image of glamour that gives Bombay the reputation of being the Los Angeles of India.

Read the rest of the story, published in The Christian Science Monitor

Saving Lives and Playing Politics

By Kelly Virella (class of 2003)

AHMEDABAD, India, March 2003 – When temperatures hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit, 35 patients lay in an infirmary without air-conditioning, in beds separated by less than three feet of space. But among the poor in this city of five million, they were the lucky ones.

A woman with jaundice, who had an IV in her arm, lay in her bed and explained why. She had been in the hospital for four days, but owed less than $8 for her stay. That’s 90 percent less than what she would have paid at a private hospital.

“Here we get doctors full time, 24 hours a day,” she said. “It’s as good as private practice, for a very nominal charge. Even better than government hospital.”

It’s cheap and by many accounts good health care, but somebody, somewhere down the line, has to pay. That’s where the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (Council) or the World Hindu Council comes in, a 37-year-old religious-cultural group with offices in 42 countries, including the United States.

Although the Council carefully avoids calling itself a political organization, its growth is good news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which now rules India. The Council’s story in Gujarat offers a glimpse of how the ruling BJP hopes to keep increasing its seats in Parliament.

One year after the communal violence between Muslims and Hindus, this bed is the only item left in the relief camp for Muslims whose homes were burned. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

The Council that runs the hospital is the same led by people named in police records in riots that killed more than 1,000 Muslims in March of 2002. Following the riots, the Council distributed brochures across this city against Muslims — who make up less than 9 percent of Gujarat’s 51 million people — calling them “traitors and terrorists” and asking Hindus to “save our country by boycotting Muslims economically and socially.”

Such facts hardly faze Dr. Hitesh Ramanuj, the chief of staff of the hospital, who is also the head of a city-level branch of the Council. He says his organization is honored to fund and run the hospital. “It’s not a totally fascist organization,” he said. “I didn’t join the organization because it was a fascist organization. I joined because it had a social service component.”

It’s this “social service component,” many say, that the Council is using to hide a shrewd strategy to win over destitute, low-caste Hindus, a constituency that has traditionally shown little support for its brand of anti-Muslim ideology. The strategy seems to be working.

Some of the strongest evidence is in Bapunagar, the predominantly low-caste, Hindu slum of 75,000 residents, where Shree Dhanvantry hospital is located. Bapunagar is named after Mahatma Gandhi who was born in Gujarat and was called Bapu (father of the nation).

With nearly 20,000 laid-off textile mill workers, it’s a sort of refugee camp for people who lost their jobs in the early ’80s and ’90s, when changes in technology and government mismanagement shut down all but six of Ahmedabad’s 61 mills. Already, the Council has recruited an estimated 7,000 members here, including the jaundiced woman.

These numbers are key to the Council’s growth. The Council champions an ideology called Hindutva. Loosely, this means ensuring a Hindu state for India where minorities, notably Christians and Muslims, “should know their place.”

This ideology dovetails with that of the BJP. Political observers say that if the BJP is Hindutva’s brain, the Council is its brawn.

The BJP has reaped rich political dividends thanks to the Council’s “mass-contact programs.” These include several campaigns across the country against “cow slaughter,” (Hindus revere the cow) and against conversion of oppressed low-caste Hindus to Islam or Christianity.

Council leaders and activists played a key role in the demolition of a 450-year-old mosque in the northern India town of Ayodhya in 1992 and are now threatening to defy court orders to build a Hindu temple there. All this has come in handy for the BJP: from just two seats in the 545-member Parliament in 1980, the BJP now has 182.

The first ones to jump onto the Hindutva bandwagon were upper-caste, urban middle-class Hindus. Many political observers feel that with these voters under its belt, the BJP is looking at making inroads into the poor, low-caste Hindus, who make up over 52 percent of the country’s population and have traditionally sided with India’s leading opposition party, the Congress Party. The Dhanvantry hospital and other elements of the Council’s “social service component” in villages are designed to deliver these members.

However, some say that it goes deeper than that. “Charity is there, but it is basically a superficial thing,” said Gurang Jani, a sociology professor at Gujarati University. “They just want to create the Hindu fundamentalist mind in the new generation. They want to create this radical Hinduism. They are not changing the community. They are just creating havoc.”

And for this, no ground is more fertile than Gujarat. Of the Council’s estimated 4 million members nationwide, about 1.5 million come from this state alone — a 20 percent growth over the last five years. Gujarat is also the only state where the BJP is in power and where it has a special relationship with the Council.

In the national government, the BJP rules in a coalition of more than 20 parties and is often embarrassed by the Council’s brand of Hindutva since its shrill anti-Muslim rhetoric makes partners nervous — some have even threatened to quit if the Council isn’t reined in. In the Gujarat legislature, however, the BJP is in power alone and doesn’t need to look over its shoulder every time the Council raises the heat as it did during the riots, leading the mobs and fueling the violence.

During the communal violence in Gujarat, many Muslims were burned alive. This boy managed to escape but the scars on his body will always remain as a reminder. Photograph by Mimi Chakarova.

Our hands are clean of Muslim blood, says D.K. Akruwala, vice-president of the Gujarat branch of the Council. He says the Hindus who started the riots simply got upset when they heard how a Muslim mob had set a train on fire, killing 59 Hindus near here. “Do you expect that there would not be any reaction?” he yelled. “The reaction to burning 59 persons was burning 1,000 people. It was a reaction of the people.” All the Council did, Akruwala said, was help Hindus organize their defense. “Our agency is responsible for protecting the afflicted.”

That wasn’t all the Council did. In the elections that followed the riots, several Council members — from the top brass down to neighborhood activists — threw their weight behind the BJP. Not only did Council leaders share the campaign stage with BJP candidates, they mobilized voters, distributed pamphlets and called for a boycott of the Congress Party. At one campaign rally, Pravin Togadia, a former Ahmedabad-based surgeon and now the Council’s No. 2 man, ridiculed Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress, as an “Italian dog,” a reference to her Italian origins. Riding on a wave of such a campaign whipped up by the Council, the BJP won a landslide victory in Gujarat, securing two-thirds of the seats in the state assembly.

Dinesh Shukla, Gujarati University professor emeritus of political science, estimates that 20 to 25 percent of the BJP’s newly elected legislators are Council members. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, when just last month, the party pushed through the Gujarat state assembly a Council-backed law punishing with fines some conversions to Islam.

Yet even before the election, there was evidence the Council was reaching the masses. Poor, low-caste Hindus who had lived side-by-side with poor Muslims for decades allegedly raped, burned and mutilated their Muslim neighbors during last year’s riots, which were the most gruesome of the five that have occurred here in the past 35 years. What surprised many was how for the first time, the BJP made enormous gains in predominantly low-caste villages and districts which were traditional Congress bastions.

But Dr. Jaideep Patel, the man who runs the Gujarat branch of the Council, said low-caste Hindus are not his targets. “No, no, no,” he said, sitting behind his desk, flailing his hands. “All Hindu people are connecting with the Council,” from Brahmins to the untouchables.

“These (the charitable works) are not the workings of a fascist organization,” said Patel, who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt that he says left him unconscious for 15 days. “Who is the fascist?” he said. “The one who shoots or the one who takes the bullet?”

But Hanif Lakdawala, a Muslim psychiatrist and civil rights leader who runs a medical clinic for poor Hindus and Muslims, said “fascists” set up hospitals, take bullets and shoot them, too. “We’re up against very formidable forces,” he said. “Hatred against Muslims has become part of the collective consciousness of Gujarati Hindus.”