Growing Rice Debt Free

By Beth Hoffman, for Living on Earth (class of 2009)

ORISSA, India, April 2009—In recent years there have been many reports about desperately indebted farmers in India. Throughout the world, farmers have become increasingly dependent on artificial fertilizers and pesticides to boost production. But the costs are high – and many poor farmers end up buried in debt.

Beth Hoffman reported from Orissa, India on attempts by farmers there to break this cycle of chemical dependency. Some farmer advocates there are trying to find low-cost and low-tech solutions to India’s tired soil – solutions that can increase fertility and yield without more trips to the moneylender.

Beth’s story is a radio piece that aired for Living on Earth in April of 2009.

Saying ‘No’ to dowry

By Emma Cott, for The Hindu Sunday Magazine (class of 2009)

BANGALORE, India, January 2009—Satya Naresh is hunched over a laptop in his office, waiting for his website to open. “I need to upgrade the server,” beams the 38-year-old founder and CEO of, India’s first and only matrimonial website for brides and grooms that want to marry without dowry.

Ever since the success of his third matrimonial meet-up, or Swayamvaram, last December, curious young people have been logging in, and 300 new profiles are awaiting approval. As the site enters its fourth year, membership is still shy of 10,000, but Naresh is confident that as more people speak out against dowry while finding happy matches, the idea will catch on. He gushes about each of his 13 “success couples” like a proud parent.

Although dowry was outlawed in 1961, it is still practised to different extents in different castes. Dowry harassment can range from a lifetime of verbal abuse to extreme physical and sexual abuse to murder. But few are willing to speak about it from their own experience.

Vasantha, a producer at a television station, said that she attempted suicide after the beatings and emotional abuse by her husband and in-laws became too severe. Her two-year-long marriage was “like a hell for me. Every day they were torturing me…”

Thanks to the support of her parents, who moved to Hyderabad to care for her after her subsequent divorce, Vasantha escaped a deadly fate. But many don’t.

Read the rest of Emma’s story in The Hindu Sunday Magazine.

Gay Rights in India

By Abbie Swanson, for Making Contact (class of 2009)

DELHI, India, January 2009—”Gay Rights in India” looked at a group of gay men and women trying to overturn a British colonial law in India called Section 377. The law, which has since been overturned, made being gay illegal. Abbie interviewed people in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai for the story.



Abbie’s project is an 18-minute radio documentary. The piece aired in June of 2009 on Making Contact and in July of ’09 on KALW.

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.

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Kerala Brides

By Sonia Narang (class of 2008)

Sreeja, a Kerala bride, now arranges marriages between women from her hometown in south India and men in the north.

SORKHI VILLAGE, Haryana, December 2007—The day after her wedding ceremony, Omana and her new husband boarded the Mangala Express to make a 2,000-mile journey that gave her a panoramic sense of her changed life. The train left the verdant rice paddies and coconut groves of her home in southern Kerala and 56 hours later, she stepped off in the dry, brown fields of the north.

Up until that trip, Omana had lived with her parents and never left their village where local custom permitted her and other girls to wear their hair loose and to leave their face uncovered. Now, in her husband’s village in the northern state of Haryana, she is pronouncing words in a new language, learning to cook round flatbreads for her husband’s family, and adapting to the cold Haryana winter. Even the dress is different. Here, she must cover her entire face with a veil.

“It’s difficult doing my outdoor chores with this cloth on my face since I never had to wear this back home,” she said in broken Hindi as she sat in her husband’s home surrounded by his family. As she talked, she tucked loose strands of her hair under a scarf and showed a visitor the photos of her wedding.

Omana is part of a supply and demand phenomenon created by female feticide – the selective abortion of girl children, who many families here have long viewed as an economic burden. Up until ultrasound was introduced into India in 1979, many women were pressured to kill their infant daughters. Now, the new technology has led to selective abortion and some ten million female fetuses have been aborted in the past two decades, according to U.K.-based medical journal The Lancet.

Though sex selective abortion became illegal in India in 1994, the practice continues in many parts of the country. Female feticide is most acute in Haryana, a prosperous farming state where families can afford ultrasounds. The 2001 census counted only 850 women for every 1,000 men in Haryana. That imbalance has forced some in this country of more than a billion people to break with one of its more ingrained customs – marrying within one’s caste, a rigid class structure that defines a person’s place in society. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s marriages are within the same caste, but increasingly, Haryana’s eligible bachelors are looking beyond their region and their caste for brides. Even though doing so is considered the last step of a desperate man, it’s still better than staying single – for men and women.

Three friends from Kerala, south India hold their children in a village in northern India, where there’s a shortage of brides.

The importing of brides or the “marriage squeeze” as a UN report called it, has created its own abuses – women trafficked from the poorest parts of India, women unable to produce children sold off to other men, and the importing of under-aged girls. Demographer Christophe Guilmoto, who authored the UN report, said that scarcity of women also increases the risk of gender-based violence.

While the Kerala women are treated better than the rest, women’s advocacy groups say it’s clear that the adjustments many make are dramatic. Kerala has one of the country’s highest literacy rates and Haryana one of its lowest. And the Kerala brides are also moving to a highly patriarchal society, where property is passed down through the sons and women move into their husbands’ homes. In Kerala, women wield power and no one would think of getting rid of a female child.

But, getting married is as important for women in Kerala as it is for men in Haryana. So, the surplus of bachelors in Haryana gave Omana something she couldn’t find in Kerala – a husband. Like Omana, other Kerala women are considered undesirable by Kerala men for a variety of reasons: age, horoscopes difficult to match, and an inability to pay the required dowry. While Haryana men would ordinarily never marry anyone with these so-considered glitches, none matter if they marry outside their state. The grooms even pay for the wedding, a cost traditionally covered by the bride’s family.

And, brides from Kerala are particularly sought after.

“People here think Kerala girls are better than those from other parts of India because they are well educated,” said Rekha Lohan, a researcher in northern Haryana. Kerala also has the highest ratio of females to males in the country, with about 1,100 women for every 1,000 men.

In Kerala, when families of prospective grooms inquired about Omana’s horoscope and found it was one of the rare ones known as unfavorable for marriage, they looked elsewhere. Every year, her prospects got dimmer. At 29, she was considered far past the marriageable age, and her family considered the options. They had heard of other local women marrying men from Haryana and so they sent Omana’s photo to one recent bride and it went from there to the house of Ajay Singh, a 34-year-old sweet shop employee. Before long, the couple met in Kerala for the first time and just days later married.

“These women don’t share anything with the men they marry,” said Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. “They don’t share the language, they don’t share food habits or culture. Everything is very different.”

As a result, she added, the marriages are difficult in the first years. “But over a period of time, the women get accepted, they adjust, they learn the language and many of them who came a while ago dress and talk like the Haryana women,” she said.

The marriages are perhaps toughest in the smaller villages where the cultural practices such as wearing the head covering are strict. But even here, in the village, a few Kerala women are making their mark.

All the villagers, for example, know Sreeja, a 31-year-old woman from Kerala, who arranged Omana’s wedding and several other matches. After Sreeja’s matchmaking side business took off, she became the talk of the village and appeared on local newscasts. Though she works in the fields and dons the traditional head covering like most women here, she wasn’t willing to abide by the prejudice towards newborn girls.

Negative attitudes towards girls remain strong. “Haryana’s society doesn’t recognize they have created this shortage of women by eliminating their own girl children,” Kaur said.

Moreover, she added, as long as men are able to marry women from elsewhere, “They can pretend there is no crisis.”

Usha sorts through photos of her wedding, which took place in the southern state of Kerala.

Sreeja is an anomaly in the village. But nearby in the town of Hansi – just 10 miles away – strong Kerala women are becoming increasingly common. At present, the town of 75,000 people has about 300 Kerala brides, the majority who come from the same town in northern Kerala. Some of those marriages have been brokered by Usha and her sister Vasantha, who first married Haryana men several years ago. Now, with the help of their mother in Kerala, the sisters have enlarged their own community by arranging eight other matches.

“Earlier, I was always homesick and wanted to go to Kerala often,” said Usha, who lives with her large extended family in a two-story home with an open-air courtyard. Five years into her marriage, she comfortably moves about the house, cooks north Indian meals with ease, and speaks fluent Hindi.

“I was thinking about my mother, brothers, and sisters all the time.” Now, she doesn’t miss home as much and only visits Kerala for weddings or other major events.

She said her husband’s family welcomed her into their home, supported her, and even taught her how to cook like a Haryana girl. “The curries here are made very differently. We use coconut oil back home in Kerala and they use a different kind of oil here. I learned how to make the curries from my mother-in-law.”

Still, Usha feels most relaxed around other transplants from Kerala. On one recent winter day, she wrapped a chiffon pink scarf around her neck, put on a red sweater, and headed to a nearby house to meet her closest friend, who like most of her friends is also from her hometown in Kerala. These women are like her sisters, she said.

“If there’s some event in my home, I invite them. Similarly, they invite me over to their houses. If I fall ill and have to go to the hospital, they come with me to the hospital.”

As Usha navigated the narrow alleyways, she got a few stares, but mostly blended in with the others on the street. The minute she arrived at her friend’s home, she switched into her native language of Malayalam and the two women chatted over cups of steaming sweet tea.

Usha, a Kerala bride, learned a new language and customs after marrying a groom in north India.

When the women visit their parents in the south, the differences between life in Haryana and Kerala are immediately visible. As the train pulled into a Kerala village one January morning, the villagers were in the final hours of an all-night temple festival, complete with drumming, fireworks, and intense traditional dances performed by men in bright red masks and headdresses. In Haryana, the Kerala brides said, everyone would have been asleep hours earlier. And like New Yorkers who winter in Florida, Kerala brides prefer the warm weather of home to the cold weather of Haryana.

Usha’s mother Kalyani, who still lives in Kerala, said that marriage will always trump geography.

“When the girl gets old and is unable to find a groom and get married here, we’re fine even if she gets married to someone far away,” Kalyani said. Moreover, she added, even if her daughter and the other brides can’t stay in Kerala, they get married in the Kerala style.

“The groom’s family brings the wedding dress and jewelry to the bride’s house the day before the marriage.” Even though the brides permanently move to Haryana, Kalyani has no regrets.

“When I arrange a wedding, I’m giving the bride a new life and god will give me blessings,” she said.

Read the story on Sonia Narang’s blog.

A Journey to Ayodhya

By Wu Nan (class of 2008)

AYODHYA, Uttar Pradesh, December 2007—This is the way pilgrims reach Ayodhya. Thirty minutes before the Farakka Express left for Delhi, passengers filled track Number 11. As they waited to board, some kept warm with wraps, others with blankets or rugs. Young girls and children fell asleep on the ground as rats scurried to get the crumbs under nearby benches.

Ayodhya, the site of a 1992 religious riot between Hindus and Muslims, first caught my interest this past December when the government announced another delay—the 43rd—in issuing its investigation of the incident. Again, the Muslim and Hindu activists blasted the government and the sharpness of their argument made me wonder about the the depth of such religious and political.

The facts are these: Up until December 6, 1992, Ayodhya, a city of less than 50,000 population and over 460 miles east of Delhi,  was the site of the 16th Century Babri Mosque. Hindus had long argued that it was also the birthplace of Ram, their most important deity, but India’s first prime minister put an end to the dispute in 1949 when he closed the mosque. That settled the issue until the 1986 when a district judge reopened it and a new party, known as the BJP, began to use the issue of the mosque as a way to cut across class lines and attract Hindu voters. Hindus compose 80 percent of the country, compared to the 13 percent that identifies as Muslim.

On that December morning in  1992, the BJP gathered  600,000 Hindus near the mosque to call for building a Hindu Temple. A dozen Hindu activists broke through the police barrier around the mosque and others soon followed. Within hours, the mosque was destroyed. The wave of violence that followed ended with 2,000 deaths and the appointment of the Liberhan Commission.

The original mission for the Liberhan Commission was within two months to report on who are responsible for the destruction and how and why it happeneds. Fifteen years later the unpublished report still sits on Judge Liberhan’s desk. I wondered how the report failed to come out and a centuries old religious feud could arouse such passions. I went to India to try and to understand Ayodhya and its aftermath.

There I was at the station, anxiously expecting my destination, Ayodhya. Each year the town attracts over 500,000 pilgrims, ten times larger than its population. Why? Thinking about it, I saw a faded blue train approached the platform. As the train pulled in, the crowd rose and chased it. Passengers jumped into the dark carriages looking as if they had been swallowed by a  magician’s box. I held my train ticket but had no idea what carriage was mine.

The crowds suddenly pushed me into the carriage in front of where I stood. It was dark inside. Minor light came through tiny windows with iron bars. Others scrambled through touching  each seat and reading the numbers. I knew I had a sleeper, but had no idea where it was. I tried to get out but too many passengers were pushing in. As I looked through the bars, I thought we must look like animals trapped in a cage.

I finally squeezed out and found help from one staff in red-cap. He led me to a board stuck with a forest of papers filled with hundreds of names. Miraculously, he found mine.

Inside my car, white bulbs dangled above each cabin; the rectangular block with six bunks on either side that were separated by a narrow aisle. Dark blue curtains covered every bed and cut the whole space into smaller parts. The air was stuffy; a child cried from behind one of the curtains.

This was completely opposite experience when I took a train days ago to Chandigarh I thought. The first class air conditioned I boarded had coffin seats, food and drinks served during the entire journey.

I went there to visit Anupa Gupta, the commission’s counsel and only lawyer. He lives in that city   planned by the French architect Le Corbusier in 1950’s. Four hours south of Delhi, it’s known for its civilization of the western layout of wide, tree-shaded avenues where traffic runs in an orderly fashion.

Gupta, a lawyer in his early 40s, met me at the gate of his two story house. He is of medium height, slim and was dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and a traditional British, 18th century style tie. He smiled, looking like a character in a movie as he welcomed me into white stone house. We walked through the small garden in front and up to the second floor office. There, the walls were lined with books including a collection on the American Constitution.

“Ayodhya is an extremely dangerous issue,” Gupta said.

How, asked Gupta, could the passions of an old argument incite a million people?

Interested the issue, Gupta joined the commission in 1999 when Judge Liberhan had struggled early on and ended up firing his lawyers at that time. Immediately, the pace picked up and by 2001, Gupta began interviewing L.K. Advani, the head of the BJP party, which came into power by trumpeting Hinduism—a religion practiced by 80 percent of the country compared with the 13 percent who practice Islam

Advani is considered core to what happened to the Babri Mosque because he was the prime minister at the time of the incident. When Gupta’s questioning offended Advani, he heard from Judge Liberhan who  asked him to tone down his questions to the the former prime minister.

“I said I’d rather quit the commission,”said Gupta. “After this he (Advani) was very wary of me.”

Gupta wrote 200 pages on his deposition of  Advani. In the following nine years he also heard the testimony of nearly a hundred witnesses. His understanding of the Ayodhya issue, he said, got deeper and sharper. The last witness to testify was Kalyan Singh, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the state where Ayodhya is located. After Singh’s testimony, Gupta filed a 400 page report defining Singh’s role in Ayodhya incident. He said these reports are important evidence for what happened in Ayodhya.

“The complete truth has to be told,” he said.

When asked why the report has been delayed so many times, however, Gupta and says simply that it’s incomplete and mentions his lack of a computer and a staff of only 20.

“Was this really how such an important report stuck? And the passion still drives the pilgrims to travel on a tough trip I am enduring?” I asked myself. The train was running fast. And the next minute I fell asleep in the darkness.

I finally arrived 14 hours later. Unexpected, my interpreter took me to the Faizabad district police station where the police head wanted me to register as a foreign reporter. I was told Ayodhya is highly sensitive place and I would be accompanied by a police guard to make sure I’m in a safe area. I noticed even the women police there were armed.

My guard in green uniform nodded me and sat silently at the front of a van my interpreter booked. I sat in the back with my interpreter. We slowly drove on the stone paved road. The van trembed and made noises, while other cars, bikes, people and donkeys passed us.

This is Ayodhya,  typical of those cities built by India’s Muslim rulers in the 15th century. Low-slung houses and shops filled the narrow streets. The only thing that makes it unique is that every five to 10 meters there’s a uniformed police officer, similar to my guard. The local residents appear to be quite comfortable with the police and chat with them at ease.

We met Amar Ujula, a local political reporter who has followed the Ayodhya issue for a long time.

“Will the Liberhan report fail?” I asked the question stuck in my mind since I started my journey.

“The Liberhan report will come out either in current government under BJP’s time,” he said.

He explained that the government and BJP are both responsible for the destruction of Babri. Neither of them will be interested in exposing their fault. The major public complaint is that the government failed to prepare enough police in advance to prevent the destruction. The BJP is most eager to bury the report since it planned the gathering which lead to the mosque’s destruction, he said.

A person I later met had a different view was more critical on the Liberhan report.

“The Liberhan report is a joke. 15 years? I don’t think it will ever come out,” said Capitan Afzal Ahman Khan, a 90-year-old Muslim activist, who lives nearby the destroyed mosque.

Captain Afzal was almost killed by BJP in Dec 1992, days before Babri was destructed. Friends and relatives helped him flee, but his house was set on fire. When he heard the Babri mosque had been destroyed, he said, he cried till fainted. “When I woke up, I just wanted to die with Babri and ran toward that direction. Many people stopped me,” he said.

He paused in the dark of his house. His eyes shone. Behind him hung a poster of the Babri Mosque, this tall white building, which reminded me of the gorgeous Taj Mahal.

For him, the government report hasn’t come out because it was a shame for them as their police failed to protect the mosque. As a result, Muslims like him lost their holy mosque and had to fight for it until today.

“I’ll die after the first pray at the rebuilt Babri Mosque,” he said continuing. “The government should build a new Babri Mosque, looking exactly the same as the old one.”

He recalled the experience of praying in the Babri when he was young. To him the memory was as vivid as it was yesterday.

Captain Afzal thought of praying in Babri again almost everyday. “I believe there will be a new Babri,” he said.

Today eight family members of Captain Afzal rolled in a small house the government rebuilt. Although he survived the incident in 1992, the Government ordered body guards to protect him since he’s an figure in Ayodhya and in case similar incidents would happen to him again. So, a guard armed with an  AK 14 stands outside. A color-printed board hangs over his front door—a mark of government protection.

Five minutes away from his house there was the Babri site which rose the passion made Captain Afzal want to return to the mosque and drew the pilgrims who boarded the train with me. But, they can see as little as I did.

Stone walls have been reinforced with two layers of iron fence and arrow-shaped top point to the sky.  These surround the area that is about the size of a small stadium. No trace of the poster I saw in Captain Afzal’s house.

Only a few people are authorized by the government to be able to enter the site and these are generally researchers. Many Ayodhya residents have never visited the destroyed site.

As my trip went on, I got eager to know what Ayodhya means to BJP. Back in Delhi, I surprisingly discovered that the BJP party of Ayodhya has been building a temple five miles from the site of the mosque.

At his house in a wealthy area of south Delhi, I meet Swanpan Dasgupta, a scholar and columnist who has worked closely with BJP leaders since 1989. Dasgupta talks with me in his basement study room. Three walls are lined with bookshelves. At one corner there is one long table where each of us sitting at one end.  Dasgupta’s dog sits next to the table watching us.

To him Ayodhya represents a brazen and brave act by Hindus. “A new political identity was therefore formed,” he said, because it cut across caste lines. “There is a creation of political Hindu. That is the significance of Ayodhya to me.”

For the BJP party, this meant that the poor who had traditionally voted with the ruling Congress Party, began supporting the BJP, which had always been known as an upper caste party but one that also appealed to Muslims.

Dasgupta said that when the Muslim King Babur ruled India in the 15th Century, many Hindu temples were destroyed and converted into mosques. For decades, Hindus have wanted their temples rebuilt Ayodhya  captured this issue and made the rebuilding of the temples a political issue.

After Babri’s destruction in 1992, the question of whether there was ever a Hindu temple at the site became a charged legal and academic question. In August 2003 the Allahabad High Court accepted a report from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that offered evidence of an earlier Hindu temple beneath the Babri Mosque. Muslim archaeologists  have appealed the decision and the dispute is now stuck at the Allahabad High Court.

“It does not matter whether we’ll build it in 20 or 50 years,” said Dasgupta.  “It’s a victory for the Hindu.  We have reclaimed the site.”

The temple being built nearby, he says, is nearly 60 percent complete and will be moved once the courts say it is okay to do so.

“Ayodhya marked the beginning of Hindu militancy. The Hindu now hit back far more aggressively,” Dasgupta said. “It could become very dangerous.”

“Will there be an closure to Ayodhya?” I asked.

“It’s only one issue,” he says. “It’s never the last word. The energy Ayodhya has thrown out will go on.”

“What about the Muslims? Will they forget Ayodhya?”

“They’ll eventually get over it,” said Dasgupta. “The Muslim never ruled the country very long. They will not lead on the issue either.”

But, I’m not as sure.

The night before I left Ayodhya, I sat in my interpreter’s courtyard waiting for my train. My ears began to catch the sound of men murmuring. It was very low at first, but then it got stronger and clearer. I suddenly realized it was men praying. He said yes. It was the evening time for Muslims to pray.

The sound was like the waves of the ocean, raised and fell, went higher and higher, and finally flooded the whole town. It was a ritual that had last for years and years and seemed likely to last for decades and decades to come. Because Ayodhya is on people’s mind.

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

Kashmir: The Road to Peace?

By Sachi Cunningham (class of 2005) and Jigar Mehta (class of 2005) for PBS Frontline

Click to view the interactive project.

KASHMIR, India, November 2004Kashmir is a divided land. India controls one part, Pakistan controls the other. It has been this way since 1947. Pakistan and India have fought two wars over this beautiful, tragic highland, and for the past fifteen years, the Indian army in Kashmir has battled a pro-independence movement. For Muslim militants it has become a jihad or holy war.

When we arrived in Kashmir, we saw soldiers everywhere, peering from the tops of balconies and peeking out of bunkers on street corners. There are nearly 600,000 Indian security forces in the Indian-occupied part of Kashmir, home to some 8.5 million people—the highest soldier-to-civilian ratio in the world.

We came here because there is, at long last, talk of peace. India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, signed a cease-fire agreement in November 2003 and pledged to go forward with twelve “confidence-building” measures. For the first time in fourteen years, the two countries played a cricket match last spring, and it went off peacefully. Now they are proposing the re-opening of Kashmir’s main highway, which is currently blocked at the Line of Control which divides India- and Pakistan-held Kashmir.

We decided to take a road trip as far as we could go on this Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road — to see what life is like in the legendary valley of Kashmir and to ask people what they thought about the prospects for peace.

See the rest of the story, with interactive map and videos, on Frontline.



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

Sabotaging Seafood: Indian Fishermen Strike Back Against Shrimp Farms

By Denis Devine (class of 2004)

A shrimp for sale in Killai, India, harvested from the bank of the Uppanar River. Lately, the vendor said, her baskets haven't been very full, due to competition from nearby shrimp farms. Photo by Denis Devine.

KILLAI, Tamil Nadu, May 24, 2004—America’s favorite seafood has left this small fishing village with an aftertaste too bitter to be concealed by cocktail sauce.

Last September, an angry mob gathered in Killai’s open-air meeting hall and decided to seek its own brand of justice. Fed up with poverty, pollution and government indifference, hundreds of fishermen marched after midnight to attack an industry they say is ruining their land and water. Their target: shrimp farms whose crops end up as appetizers and entrees at sports bars and family restaurants throughout the United States.

Some poor people throughout the developing world are paying a high price for cheap shrimp, while others strike it rich. The booming shrimp-farming business of the last two decades has transformed much of the coastlines and bottom lines of tropical South Asia and Latin America, but the fishermen in this remote corner of southeast India’s Tamil Nadu state believe shrimp farming has their centuries-old traditions under siege.

On September 18th, 2003, fishermen from Killai and neighboring villages crept onto nearby ponds full of growing shrimp, opened the dams and let the water drain out. Crowds of women were beaten in a violent, pre-dawn raid by police the next morning, prompting investigations into human rights violations. Almost 100 men and women would be arrested in the following days. Now, the people of Killai want to enlist the help of Americans.

V. K. Sezhiyan, a Killai fishermen, urges Americans not to eat farmed shrimp.

“Tell them, don’t eat these prawns that are produced out of our lives, out of our blood,” said V. K. Sezhiyan, one of the village’s elder fishermen.

U.S. seafood lovers will soon be able to heed Sezhiyan’s call. “Country-of-origin” labels are scheduled to become mandatory for imported shrimp and other seafood this fall, and the labels will also tell shoppers whether the product was caught in the wild or raised on farms. But no label will convey the anguish of Killai’s fishermen as they watch their traditional way of life slip through their nets.

The technological advances and chemical enhancements of the late 20th Century’s “Blue Revolution” rapidly transformed fish-farming from a small-scale, rural tradition to today’s high-tech, global industry. Modern industrial aquaculture is often touted as the best hope for feeding a growing population as fish stocks disappear and for helping poor nations recover from massive debt. Derided as a “pink gold rush” by its critics, shrimp farming is the most profitable and largest front in the Blue Revolution.

Underwritten by international development loans, global production of farm-raised shrimp grew by 300 percent between 1975 and 1985 and 250 percent between 1985 and 1995. The industry is still growing, up 10.5 percent in the last four years, and farm-raised shrimp are gobbling up the expanding market. In the early 1980s, only five percent of the world’s shrimp were farm-raised; last year, shrimp farms produced about 35 percent – or 3.5 billion pounds – of the global shrimp supply.

Young women de-head shrimp at a modern shrimp processing plant in Chennai, India. Photo by Denis Devine.

Thanks to this flood of farmed imports, American seafood lovers have seen shrimp transformed in recent years from a locally-caught luxury dish to a cheap, ubiquitous staple at sports bars and fast-food chains. Since overtaking tuna in 2001, shrimp has been America’s most popular seafood. The United States is the biggest shrimp importer in the world, and gets about 90 percent of its shrimp from farms throughout the developing world, like those in Killai.

This global glut of cheap, farmed shrimp also threatens the livelihoods of the men and women who catch wild shrimp around the world, including the United States. Shrimp imports from the U.S.’s top six suppliers – China, Vietnam, Ecuador, Brazil, Thailand and India – jumped 67 percent over the last three years, while wholesale prices dropped 28 percent.

While Killai’s fishermen struck back against the shrimp farms themselves, their counterparts in the U.S. took the industry to court. The U.S. International Trade Commission is reviewing an anti-dumping petition against those six shrimp importing countries filed by a coalition of shrimpers, dock owners and shrimp processors from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and North and South Carolinas.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance charges the Asian and South American nations with selling their shrimp in the U.S. cheaper than it costs their shrimp farmers to grow them, or cheaper than what shrimp sells for in similar export markets – thus “dumping” artificially cheap shrimp on our shores. This “dumping,” the alliance claims, has caused the value of the U.S. shrimpers’ harvest to plunge 50 percent between 2000 and 2002 and southern shrimp processing plants to lay off 40 percent of their workers. A decision is expected in July; if the petition is successful, shrimp imports from the top six countries will be tagged with high tariffs to make the domestic shrimp more comparable in price.

Shrimp farming’s proponents says shrimp fishing is an outdated industry that can’t compete in a globalized market.

At low tide on the Uppanar River, a Killai fisherman returns from washing his boat. Photo by Denis Devine.

“The fisherman is being outcompeted, and is bewildered by it because he has always been able to get top dollar for his shrimp,” said Bob Rosenberry, the editor of Shrimp News International, a leading shrimp aquaculture industry newsletter. “The fishermen’s cost of production might be $2 per pound, whereas in shrimp farms in Asia, they’re getting a dollar a pound. As far as I can see, the writing is on the wall for the U.S. shrimp fisherman.”

In Killai, too, the fishermen worry about the low prices their dwindling catches are fetching on the market.

“Thousands and thousands of fishermen economically benefited” from Killai’s shrimp fishing heritage, said Sezhiyan, a 51-year-old father of three. “But since shrimp industries come into existence, only a few families enormously accumulated wealth at the cost of our lives.”

But in Killai and around the world, shrimp farming’s opponents are more likely to talk about the industry’s environmental impacts than its economics. They accuse the aquaculture industry of privatizing public land and exploiting natural resources at the expense of traditional coastal communities, and reserve their harshest criticism for shrimp farming.

Opponents blame shrimp farming’s hunger for coastal lands for the destruction of as much as 38 percent of the world’s mangrove forests. Forests like the 3,000-acre Pitchavaram Mangrove Forest Reserve that surrounds Killai are valuable to people as storm protection and food source, and invaluable to fish and crustaceans that feed and nurse amid the shelter of the tangled underwater roots.

Shrimp farming’s use of brackish water in its ponds has been blamed for the salinization of drinking water and agricultural land in most of the developing nations where the industry has flourished. Salty soil around the brick and palm-leaf homes in Killai has killed coconut trees and groundnuts that once provided villagers extra food and income. Local women must walk farther and farther to find a well with water that isn’t too salty to drink.

The villagers of Killai say this brick home is crumbling due to the salty runoff from nearby shrimp farms. Photo by Denis Devine.

Opponents say the chemicals and fertilizers used to keep the pondwater hospitable for shrimp kill fish and cause plankton blooms once the ponds are drained into the open water. Killai’s fishermen say their nets are catching fewer fish and shrimp and blame the 60 shrimp farms that have swallowed up acres of farmland and mangrove forests along the banks of the Uppanar River since 1994.

The international shrimp industry has been trying to cleap up its act. Pressure from environmental groups and importers in the U.S., Europe and Japan has pushed the seafood industry to develop voluntary codes of conduct and Best Management Practices that strive to make shrimp farming economically and environmentally sustainable. International market pressures for traceability and improved sanitary conditions have raised the bar for an increasingly industrialized commodity industry.

Government regulation is growing more sophisticated in the nations where shrimp farming boomed first, including India, where a new Aquaculture Authority is attempting to rein in shrimp farming’s bad actors with voluntary guidelines for sustainable shrimp farming.

To Killai’s fishermen, the government’s actions are too little, too late. They worry most about their children’s future, as they are no longer able to save enough money to send their children to college. Though they lamented the increasing migration of hundreds of their friends and relatives to the cities in search of work, Killai’s fishermen said they hoped their children would follow that same road out of the village.

“I want my children to be educated to get a good job,” said Sezhiyan of his three children. “I don’t want them to undergo the same suffering and uncertainties and unguaranteed life, because there is no regular income from fishing.”

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