Bollywood Meets Hollywood?

By Melanie Mason (class of 2010)

MUMBAI, India, April, 2010For Shankar, it was a whopper of a first day in class.  The 18 year-old, with floppy hair and a bewildered expression, was called to stand among 35 seated classmates. Shankar did not appear to relish being the center of attention.  He fixed his gaze firmly at the floor in front of him, mumbled his name and his age when asked.  The communication problems did him no favors; his instructor Rob Reece is American and speaks no Hindi and–despite attending an English-instruction school–Shankar’s English was shaky at best.  Using Reece’s fellow instructor, Jameel Khan, as a translator, Reece asked Shankar why he seemed so tentative.  “He says he’s shy,” Khan said. Reece laughed, looking distinctly like a shark that has just smelled blood in the water.

The exercise was about humiliation.  Shankar had to mimic his classmates’ gestures and sounds, and as more students jumped up, the embarrassment magnified—the gestures became lewd, the noises became shouted expletives, and in one homage to Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura movies, one student bent at the waist, grabbed his own behind and pretended to talk from it, imploring Shankar to do likewise.

This, according to Reece, is how you build a better Bollywood actor.

Reece, a member of the famed Actor’s Studio, has until recently been teaching a small Method acting workshop in Los Angeles.  But now he is in Mumbai, India, attempting to bring his Method approach to students at Whistling Woods International.  Whistling Woods is at the epicenter of Bollywood—its campus is located in Film City, Mumbai’s sprawling studio complex where many Bollywood pictures are filmed.  Its chairman is Subhash Ghai, a well-known director who is often called the “showman” of Bollywood.  After a trial run last fall, Reece moved to Mumbai in January to begin a three-year stint as head of the acting department for Whistling Woods, revamping the school’s curriculum in the Method approach.

“It’s an in-depth and specific perspective on how actors can train,” Reece says.  “The actor’s task is to express the human condition in a truthful, real, organic way.”

For beginners like Shankar, that training begins with the humiliation exercises.  “That breaks the ice,” Reece says.  “Because if you can do those things—those silly things, those outrageous things—then it’s easier just to stand there and be yourself.  If I can do these things, what have I got to hide now?”

Beyond the butt-talking, there are other exercises in Reece’s repertoire.  He introduces them in pithy shorthand—”now it’s time for sense memory,” “let’s do an imaginary monologue.”  In each exercise, Reece lobs probing questions about the students’ own lives, asking them about times that they felt vulnerable or sexy or hateful.  Students can exaggerate or imagine circumstances that would provoke an emotional response, but much of it is tied to their own experiences, making the class feel exhaustingly intimate.

“Rob is really helping us in opening us up,” said Ambuj Dixit, a 21 year-old Whistling Woods acting student from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.  “When we started our classes here, we were very stiff.  It was very difficult for us to express our emotions.”

Reece sees his work as an entry point for revamping the entire Bollywood industry, an industry that critics say produces mostly escapist, melodramatic fare.  “As acting changes, the directing can change and writing can change,” Reece says.

But wait a minute.  Isn’t this Bollywood we’re talking about—the industry that, until quite recently, shied away from showing the romantic leads kiss on the lips?  Reece is training actors to portray sexuality and humanity’s grittier emotions with a frank directness, instead of Bollywood’s more typical wink.  How can this possibly work?

An approach like Reece’s would have probably been dismissed by Bollywood insiders a few years ago.  But lately, the industry has ndergone key changes that have impacted both the business of making movies and the types of films that are being made.  Most significantly, the flirtation between Bollywood and its sister industry, Hollywood, has blossomed into a full-fledged courtship, and the growing relationship has substantial implications for both the business and art of film in India.

It is no surprise that Hollywood has its sights set on India.  It’s got the makings of an ideal market: a democratic country with an economy growing 8% each year.  As many as 4 billion tickets were sold in the country last year, and the emerging middle class has grown to about 250 million people, not far off from entire population of the United States.  But historically, Hollywood films have constituted only a tiny fraction of India’s box office—around 5%.  Indian audiences were and continue to be receptive to Hollywood blockbusters; in less than two months, Avatar grossed over $24 million in India.  But for American studios seeking to capture a bigger slice of the market, they had to change their approach.

“Here was a huge industry, a huge market and they were not able to capture it by imposing their products,” said Ravi Gupta, CEO of Mukta Arts, a studio run by Whistling Woods’s chairman Subhash Ghai.  “Because this market’s requirements of entertainment were significantly different than those of Hollywood.  The format in which stories are told, the way that stories are told, the star system that exists over here — these are issues that are very significantly different.”

Instead of simply exporting films produced in the United States, American studios are now producing films in India aimed at a local audience.  Starting in 2007, Sony, Disney and Warner Brothers have all produced Bollywood-style, Hindi-language films.  Gupta said Hollywood’s involvement with local production is reminiscent of the soft drink market in India—when Coca-Cola had trouble ousting local cola Thums Up as the country’s most popular soft drink, it instead went about acquiring the brand in 1993.  “You have to think globally, but act locally,” Gupta said.

Perhaps the best example of that approach is by Disney India, which announced plans to target the South Indian market and is producing an animation film scheduled for release in 2011, partnering with K. Raghavendra Rao, one of the best-known directors of Telugu-language films.  It’s a keen move on Disney’s part; Hindi-language Bollywood is only one of a number of India’s thriving regional film industries.  South Indian cinema—consisting of Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada language films—was named India’s most prolific film-producing region in a report last year by Ernst and Young.  And the focus on regional cinema could help Disney push its product beyond India’s largest cities; in a report released in March, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry said demand for regional products was growing significantly, particularly in smaller population hubs classified as “B & C cities” by the Indian government.

The fervor of American studios to stake a place in the Indian market is coupled with a similar desire for Indian studios to expand their reach abroad.  Last year saw the finalization of at $825 million deal between India’s Reliance Big Entertainment and the American studio DreamWorks.  This year, Reliance will also be releasing two versions of the movie Kites, starring Bollywood heartthrob Hrithik Roshan—an original Hindi version and an English version, re-edited with a shorter run time and less song sequences in order to appeal to a Western audience.  Earlier this year, many industry watchers were following the overseas performance of My Name is Khan, the latest from superstar Shah Rukh Khan, after Fox secured the distribution rights to the film.  As of April 11, the film had grossed a little over $4 million in the United States.  Gupta said it is likely much of that came from Indian nationals living abroad or Indian-Americans, with little indication that it is reaching beyond that core audience.

“I think we shouldn’t get overexcited thinking about the movie has gone international,” Gupta said.  “For us to be able to reach international markets, we have to be able to make films that address the sensibilities of the West.  Our films and the format in which we make them, they don’t achieve that at all.”

In the desire to expand to a global audience, Indian filmmakers and studios have a very fine balance to walk.  Try too hard to draw in new audiences—by cutting down on Bollywood’s beloved song and dance sequences, for example—and you run the risk of alienating a loyal domestic audience.

“If you lose your own specific storytelling style, it’s not worth it,” said Nasreen Munni Kabir, a London-based author, documentary filmmaker and expert on Indian cinema.  “You have to be accepted on your own terms.  Because if you change your style, you’ll lose your own audience.”

Since the 1990s, however, there has been another dominant trend in Indian cinema: the multiplex.  The introduction and proliferation of multiplexes in India have transformed the types of movies that are now being made and are ushering in a new era of experimentation in Indian cinema.

In a country that has over 10,000 movie houses, multiplexes are still relatively rare: about 250 exist in the entire country as of December 2009.  But their impact has been considerable.  For air-conditioned theaters, cushioned seats and concessions, multiplexes can charge as much as five dollars for a ticket, as opposed to the one dollar it costs to see a movie in the traditional single-screen theaters.  Filling a 400-seat multiplex theater at the higher price becomes just as economically viable as selling out a 1,500-seat single-screen theater—but no longer do you have to make a film that would attract 1,500 individuals for a showing.  The introduction of multiplexes in the market has fragmented the Indian audiences, which means filmmakers can tailor movies to the tastes of a narrower audience.

In years past, “the movies were basically boy meets girl, they dance around — happy stories with happy endings,” says student Ambuj Dixit.  “What happens now is they’re really experimenting with more topics.”

The success of the 2009 film Kaminey (Scoundrels) is telling.  The film plays on many classic Bollywood tropes—lead actor Shahid Kapoor plays dual roles as twin brothers suffering from mistaken identities—but there is only one major song-and-dance number (about the importance of safe sex) and the no-lip-kissing rule of traditional Bollywood is violated.  Newsweek pronounced it to be a “competent, realistic, story-driven film” and named director Vishal Bhardwaj among those who are “reinventing Bollywood.”

“The multiplex is an expensive medium now,” said Meghna Ghai-Puri, president of Whistling Woods and daughter of chairman Subhash Ghai.  “Indians like to bring their entire families, so the film has to be really worth it.  You have to have some sensibility to be able to spend that kind of money. …People are now expecting Indian films to get as good as Hollywood films.”

This is the crux of Reece’s Whistling Woods experiment.  Reece says he sees his work in India as embarking on a new frontier, evangelizing the power of Method acting with the zeal of a missionary.  “The thing I know to be true is this: human beings are human beings wherever you go,” he says.  “Art remains the same.”

Reece tells his students to operate organically and  disregard stage directions that are meant to reveal emotion or mood. But the reality of that approach is not so easy.  In class one day, a student gingerly asks how to reconcile the desire to be organic with the demands of a pushy director.  “When we actually work on a film,” he says, “what happens invariably is that we are always ordered to do a particular thing.”

This clearly touches a nerve with Reece.  “A director who is asking you to be a puppet or a robot — they are by-the-numbers going to tell you to smile here and laugh here — that director doesn’t know what the f— they’re doing,” he says, his voice escalating.  “They don’t know how to f—-g direct.  It’s one of the reasons there’s so many f—-g horrible films.”

Clashes between the creative types are not uncommon in Hollywood.  But Reece’s student raises a legitimate concern.  In an industry that has not, up until now, been exposed to the DeNiro-esque approach to acting, will directors have the patience or desire to indulge an actor and this type of performance?  One of Bollywood’s biggest stars Aamir Khan, is not trained in the Method but is known for his meticulous, some would say perfectionist, preparation for roles; his work style has earned him a reputation for being high-maintenance.  So while Whistling Woods is quick to trumpet Reece as a member of the Actor’s Studio, the school is less likely to rely on the Method as a selling point to those in the Indian film industry.

“If you say Method acting, the Bollywood people would say, ‘what? Are the actors not going to be flexible anymore?’” said Ghai-Puri.  “‘Are they not going to listen to the director anymore?  Are they going to analyze things too much?’”

And of course, there is the question of whether audiences will respond.  Nasreen Munni Kabir says she’s skeptical that Method acting, as seen in American theater, will translate to Indian films.

“How will that work here?” she asked.  “Some things you just can’t import.”

So which is it: Reece’s view that art is art, no matter where it is, or Kabir’s theory that this cultural transplant just will not take?  Audiences will have their first chance to weigh in next year, when Mukta Arts releases a film produced by Subhash Ghai and starring Whistling Wood-trained actors, all training with Reece for the film.

But it is also possible that Reece’s students might find a break outside of the Indian market.  Ghai-Puri says she sees the school serving that kind of role.  “If we invest today in talent, we’ll train them to do well in the Indian film industry,” she says, “but also to be prepared, if they get an opportunity, to do well in any part of the world.”

In spite of of Indian studios to lay claim to part of the American market, perhaps it is this idea—a cross-over of talent—that is more likely the immediate future for the two industries.  “I see the big change happening is that Indian talent will work in Hollywood films,” Kabir says.  “And Hollywood talent will work in Indian cinema.”  She added that Indian choreographers, costumers and musicians, like Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, will likely find success in the United States, while American editors, cinematographers and scriptwriters will have ample opportunity in India.  Ironically, it was this type of global cross-pollination that gave rise to the “first lady” of Indian cinema, Devika Rani, who founded the studio Bombay Talkies with husband Himanshu Rai.  Back in the 1930s, Rani spent time in Germany with Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich while working on post-production of Indian films.  Even in this age of globalization, in some respects, it is the same plot Indian cinema has followed before.

Only time will tell where Reece and his students will fit into the industry’s current landscape.  Just as the Indian industry as a whole must strike a fine balance in seeking a new global audience and keeping its domestic audience happy, so too are schools like Whistling Woods walking a tightrope—Reece’s classes in the afternoon follow morning classes in dance and acrobatics.  Reece’s students practice handsprings in the courtyard at lunch and rehearse dance steps outside class while they wait for Reece to arrive—one foot in the old ways of Bollywood, one in its idealized future.

Mary Kom: Female Boxing World Champion

Video by Armand Emamdjomeh (class of 2010) and text by Jordan Conn (class of 2010)

BHOPAL, Madhya Pradesh, April 2010—To find the world’s toughest pound-for-pound female fighter, you have to journey through a place where the women carry water on their heads and the mosquitoes carry malaria in their guts. Mangte Chungneijang Merykom—the four-time pinweight world champion better known as Mary Kom—trains here on the outskirts of Bhopal, a state capital located squarely in the center of the Indian subcontinent. Here, gaunt cattle meander through the road while barefoot children pay them no mind, instead running through and around the tarp-and-wood built huts that serve as their homes.

Along this route you’ll find one water pump, a few stray dogs, and several dozen residents: mostly farmers, though living on land that has been stricken by drought. But continuing on the neighborhood’s single paved road, the expanse of barrenness gives way to signs of modernity as you reach the Sports Authority of India training center, a sprawling complex of fields, gyms and hostels. Presently, the complex is home to the national women’s boxing team, a group of women who—despite growing up in a country with little support for female athletes—represent India’s efforts to shed its reputation as an Olympic underachiever.

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On this late-March afternoon, the multipurpose training hall is awash in controlled chaos, with 34 boxers participating in group sparring drills. The fighters may represent India’s elite, but the gym is more fit for untrained amateurs than for Olympic medal contenders. Dusty and dim with no air conditioning to shield the athletes from outside temperatures that near triple digits, the cavernous room is nonetheless a centerpiece in one of India’s finest facilities. And in it, the fighters rotate, trading partners and exchanging blows, each boxer getting a shot at all others in her weight class.

And then the lights go out.

It’s common here—common enough that the boxers barely lose a beat—as power outages occur frequently throughout India, and the government-run training center isn’t immune from the country’s infrastructural growing pains.

But you can still find Mary Kom standing in the darkness, stretching her 5-foot-nothing, 100-pound body as she awaits her next opponent. Kom is clad in a red jersey with the word “POLICE” emblazoned across its back—a nod to her service to the department in her hometown of Imphal—and has on dusty old white Adidas sneakers, a pair of baggy shorts, and her standard red headgear and gloves. When the whistle blows Kom snaps to attention, touching gloves with her next partner, Pinky Jingra, before crouching into a ready stance.

Even in the darkness, Kom’s movements look electric. The smallest person in the room attracts the most attention. Every flinch—whether it be a nod of the head or a spasm of the shoulder—seems rehearsed, calculated, measured down to the perfect time and distance needed to lure Jingra into her trap. Kom is part-brute, part-ballerina, equal parts competitor and performer. If she wasn’t a boxer, she’d be a singer, she says, or perhaps a model. Either way, she would be seen, known, and adored, her infectious energy and world-beating confidence propelling her onto some sort of stage. For now, Kom’s stage is a training mat. Her audience is a coach, a reporter and a translator.

And her performance is flawless.

Kom dances, pauses, and then detonates, each fist a live grenade exploding through Jingra’s quickly-weakening defense. She unfurls a barrage of jabs complemented by an occasional but devastating left hook, driving Jingra backwards until she reaches the edge of the mat. When the violence pauses, it seems to have stopped only because Kom willed it do so. And when it resumes, Kom refuses to relent until the whistle’s final sound.

Women’s boxing will make its Olympic debut at the 2012 London games. Though rarely seen as a bastion of feminist progressivism, India was among the countries pushing hardest for the sport’s inclusion. The reason is simple: Kom and her teammates are good. And when it comes to Olympic competition, India is not. So when 2012 rolls around, 1.2 billion people will look to this diminutive dynamo as their great hope for Olympic glory.

“She can win gold,” says Viren Rasquinha, COO of Olympic Gold Quest, a foundation that supports Kom and other elite Indian athletes. “And it would excite this country in an unbelievable way.”


Despite the fact that more than 17 percent of the world’s population lives in India, the country has won only two Olympic gold medals in the last four decades. Of the ten largest countries on Earth, only Bangladesh (population: 162 million) has had less Olympic success.

“We have never had the proper training structure in place at the youth level,” says RK Naidu, director of the SAI training center in Bhopal. “To compete at the highest level like America and China you have to be training from 13 or 14 years old.”

Cricket remains the most popular sport in India, followed by soccer, field hockey, tennis, and basketball. But boxing’s popularity has grown over the past 15 years, particularly in the states of Haryana and Manipur, where influential local coaches have led efforts to increase youth participation. And while some male boxers have won on the international stage—Haryana native Vijender Singh won the middleweight bronze in Beijing—the women’s team has had the most consistent success.

Kom won silver in the first women’s world championships in 2001, finishing as India’s lone medalist. Her success inspired increased participation and funding for the sport. In the 2002 world championships Kom won gold, and three of her teammates earned bronze. Kom defended her title at the next world championships in 2004, this time complemented by four bronze medals for the rest of the team. India emerged as a bona fide powerhouse in 2006, when the national team earned four gold medals, more than any other country.

But despite their success, the women still must fight against a culture that sees their sport as unfeminine. “There is a problem in Indian culture,” 2008 silver medalist Usha Nagisetty says through a translator. “Women are not expected to leave the home. They’re not expected to do anything.”

Beyond the cultural bias against their sport, the fighters also struggle to keep up with the world’s elite while training with second-rate equipment in subpar facilities. “We need more imported equipment,” says Vankideser Rao, a national team assistant coach. “We need better gloves, better headgear to avoid injuries.”

Kom sometimes trains alone with the support of the Olympic Gold Quest, using private money to work out at better gyms in China. There, she is given better equipment, and she eats meat three times a day. At India’s camps, cost and religion (many Hindus are don’t eat meat) limit the menu to mostly-vegetarian dishes. Olympic Gold Quest is also trying to send Kom to Ireland to train with Peter Taylor, a world-renowned coach and the father of Katie Taylor, one of the world’s best lightweight fighters.

But the other boxers are left with domestic facilities and coaches as they compete for an Olympic opportunity. And although most international tournaments include 13 weight classes, only three weights will compete in the Olympics. This means fewer slots on the Olympic team and increased competition once the games begin, as everyone will be fighting against boxers who typically compete in weight classes heavier or lighter than their own.

Still, India figures to field several medal contenders, including Nagisetty and 2006 world champion Sarita Devi. But the woman shouldering the most pressure is Kom.

Growing up in a remote village in the volatile state of Manipur, Kom was discouraged from boxing because her father didn’t want damage done to his daughter’s pretty face. What his advice failed to account for, however, was the fact that Kom would turn out to be so good that she would barely ever have to take a punch.

His lack of foresight was understandable. A poor farmer with four children and little means with which to feed them, Kom’s father saw no reason for his daughter to spend her days fighting when she could be studying or working. But as a natural athlete with an affinity for kung-fu movies, Kom was transfixed the first time she saw boxers training at a local gym.

So Kom, then 17, went behind her parents’ back. Saving the $3 monthly allowance she was given, Kom bought her first pair of boxing gloves for $10. She showed up at the gym one day, asking to join the fight. Local coach Ibomcha Singh told Kom that she was too small to enter the ring. She persisted, and eventually, he relented.

The decision paid off. “She’s small, but she has a great body for boxing,” says national team coach Anoop Kumar. “Long arms, quick feet, a good reach.”

Three months after she first donned her gloves, Kom won the state championship. Her parents learned of their daughter’s deception by seeing her picture in the local newspaper. Rather than celebrating her talents, Kom says, “everyone in the village just laughed at me.”

Their disapproval became her motivation.

“One day,” she recalls saying to her parents, “I will show you. I will show everyone.”

But show them what? In a culture with little use for female athletes — even those who compete at the highest levels — how much must be proven before acceptance is gained? Should she show that she could compete on the world stage? Kom did that the next year, winning a silver medal at the 2001 world championships in Scranton, Penn. Show them that she could financially provide for the family? That happened when the government gave her a job with the local police department as part of the compensation package India gives to all of its elite international athletes.

The success and steady paycheck helped to win the approval of her parents, but as Kom’s career continued, her detractors persisted. After winning world championships in 2002 and 2003, she married Onler Kom in 2005. Marriage brought expectations of retirement, as her home community implored her to focus on beginning a family rather than continuing her career.

Pressures to marry—and in turn, to spend in the home and away from the boxing ring—affect nearly all of India’s female boxers. Some wed and then abandon their boxing careers. Nagisetty has postponed her own wedding until after the London Olympics. But Kom is one of few who have managed to be both a wife and a world champion.

“For most women in India, after marriage, their future is finished,” she says. “I want them to see, if Mary Kom can do this, I also can do this.”

Onler gave his wife full support, pushing her to continue training and competing rather than devoting all her time to caring for their home.

“I am like the boy and he is like the girl,” she says with a laugh. “He cooperates with me. He supports me.”

In 2007 Kom gave birth to twin boys, Rechungvar and Kupneivar, in a Caesarean section surgery. Pregnancy and early motherhood took her out of the ring for a total of 18 months. When she wanted to return to competition, even her coaches believed that she was incapable of regaining her world-class form.

While it is not uncommon for mothers to compete in international sporting events—American Olympians Lisa Leslie and Lindsay Davenport come to mind—to many, the violence inherent in boxing seemed to be too much for a woman who’d given birth, particularly by C-section.

“Everyone said, ‘If you had good sense, you would stop,’” she says. “My coaches said I was too weak. Only my husband supported me.”

She returned to competition in the Asian championships in September 2008, where she lost in the gold medal fight, her second loss in an international competition and her first since the 2001 world championships.

“Even though I lost, I realized that I still had some strength left,” she says. “If I can make it to the final, then with more training, I can win another gold medal.” Two months later she did just that, earning her fourth world gold and becoming the first mother to ever win a world championship.

Now, Kom has more world championships than any woman in history. She has won the Rajiv Gandhi award, the highest honor an Indian athlete can receive. She has inspired an entire generation of Indian female boxers. “Being the mother of two, being the world champion, she has been such an inspiration to the women of India,” says Nagisetty. “She shows just how strong Indian women are.” Everyone who has ever doubted her—be they parents, coaches, journalists, or anyone else—has been proven wrong. So with her boys growing up and her boxing academy (a school that trains young fighters from remote villages in Manipur) now thriving, it may seem like there is little motivation for Kom to continue.

Yet she continues to work—sparring with gloves befit for a beginner, eating meals that lack the protein her body requires, and struggling against a society that still regards her with suspicion—day after day.

“I would retire,” she says, “if it was not for the Olympics. My motivation is to win more championships, to win every tournament. But my biggest motivation is to win the Olympic Gold medal.”

Finally, she just might get that chance.

The State of the Cycle Rickshaw

Video by Helene Goupil (class of 2010) and text by Allison Davis (class of 2010)

DELHI, India, April 2010—On a chilly night in downtown San Francisco, the Giant’s baseball game had just ended, unleashing a tumult of people into the street looking for a way home. Some wait in line for over-packed public transportation. Others wander towards the increasingly long taxi stand.  As the crowd grows restless, a twenty-something man rode up on a cycle rickshaw, he slows to a stop as two women waved him down. “How much for a ride to the Mission?” they asked, a distance of about 3 miles.

“Sorry, that’s too far,” he said riding off, the  lone cycle rickshaw seen that evening.

As the night ends in the Bay Area, the Sun is just beginning to rise over the craze of  Delhi streets.  The famous traffic moves like a mass of writhing snakes — cars, auto rickshaws, cycle rickshaws and pedestrians all  moving through and around one another.  The cycle rickshaws, a favorite choice for commuters thanks to low fares, number 8 million in Delhi  and can deftly weave in and out of the commuter hustle. Among them. A thin and quick moving man in a light cotton, mustard button down Pasawan cycles through the Delhi streets looking for his first customer of the day.

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The Cycle rickshaw has always been a mainstay of life in Indian cities like Delhi and Kolkata. But, in the past decade as the push for green transportation reaches a fever pitch, it has spread to other cities. New York, San Francisco Bay Area and London all boast a growing cycle rickshaw force.  However, unlike the San Francisco counterparts  — a young, healthy man with a drivers’ license and a t-shirt boasting the company for which he works and a love of cycling — cycle rickshaw pullers in Delhi are rarely as fortunate.

Paswan, 32,  lives in the slums of Rohini, a town north of Delhi.   He has driven a pedicab for 16 years since migrating from Bihar.  At the end of his day transporting passengers an average of 20-25 km  returns to the minute room he rents in a two story stone structure. To get to his room, he wheels his rickshaw through the narrow, winding  avoiding stray dogs, free-roaming children and piles of  burning waste. He climbs a rickety wooden ladder and deftly scuttles across  a ledge the width of a bookshelf .  Drawing  back the curtain of the narrow doorway, Paswan reveals a  dark and cramped  room with a low ceiling— a full grown man can hardly stand up straight without having the top of his head lopped off by a spinning steel ceiling fan.  His possessions are few, some clothes a few sets of beads,  cooking utensil, a single plate stove and a plastic bucket in the corner for water.  But still it is better than other rickshaw drivers who have to sleep in their rickshaws pulled over on the side of the street — Paswan has done that too.

Paswan  is representative of  the class of struggling rickshaw drivers. He migrated from Bihar, and with little education he chose to pull rickshaws — a job with no necessary training. Paswan makes about 70 rupees a day (about $1.50) most of which, he sends home to the wife and child he left behind.

Is not a unique story.  Cycle rickshaws or pedicabs were  introduced to Delhi in the 1940’s to replace the hand-pulled rickshaw that is still popular in Kolkata.  Even with the rise of auto rickshaws, cars or motorcycles, the pedicab has continued to grow in number It’s hard physical labor but it requires little to no education or training. It is an entry level job that offers a way for the drivers to make money in the agricultural off-season though a higher number are year round drivers.

Vignesh Jha is the Director for the Federation for the Rights of Rickshaw Pullers (FORPI) and has immersed himself in the lives of rickshaw pullers in hopes  of  bettering their lives.  He witnesses the difficulties of migrant life. Often malnourished, the physical labor requires about 4,000 calories, while most only eat 1,600. The pullers live in Delhi for 10 or 11 months and often have no way of  communicating with his family for weeks.

Paswan missed the birth of his 4-month-old daughter.

Due to the loneliness and isolation, many pullers, like Paswan, turn to alcohol.  Some also turn to what Ina  delicately calls the “bachelor’s life”, which results in exposure to HIV or AIDS and is often transmitted back to the wives.  Malnutrition and tuberculosis are also common. “Everyday they work hard, they serve hard,” said Ina, “it is incredibly hard on their bodies.”

But what other choice is there?  “We stay here to feed our children,” Paswan said of his reasons for enduring the rampant hardships.

More than just bodily abuses, rickshaw pullers who do not own their own pedicabs,  often suffer exploitation from the people from which the rent— they are often forced to pay 30-40 rupees a day in rental fees.  Without formal licenses the police, who will sometimes seize their rickshaws, often harasses them said Paswan.

“They say our documents are not valid and slap us with more fines… the municipal corporation officials kept taking our rickshaws and fined us 1,000 rupees every time.”

That was before FORPI, says Paswan.

Outside of the Japanese Gardens in Rohini, over 50 rickshaw pullers parked their pedicabs in an abandoned expanse of dry land next to a building site. From the back of each of the Rickshaws was a red sign with the FORPI  motto written out.  Many of them were draped over the handles of their vehicles, sharing chewing tobacco and water from one silver milk container.  Some were napping in the seats of the rickshaws but all had come to hear  Vignesh Jha speaks from a warbling single amp and microphone.  As Ina passed through the crowd, an altruist rock star sweating in rumpled business attire, the group of pullers rose to their feet and   pressed their together in a pose of thanks.

After all, this was a man who was working to save their livelihoods and their lives.

Through FORPI, pullers like  Paswan have been able to stop drinking and have organized with other pullers. FORPI has worked with  over 870 pullers, provided them with id’s, medical attention and is working to subsidize the rickshaws the pullers can own their own.

The improvements seem small, but they make an enormous difference in their lives.

Jha has mortgaged his house to continue to fund his endeavor, he purses it with relentless fervor.

Several other organizations like American Indian Foundation have joined in partnerships with banks and government organizations and micro-credit lenders to improve do the same thing but on a much larger scale. There is, it seems, a much greater push to empower the pullers.

This week President Obama honors an Indian management philanthropist in the White House for his efforts in helping rickshaw pullers. He has invited Irfan Alam, chairman of SammaaN Foundation to a meeting of social Entrepreneurs. Alam, a resident of Patna , has been gaining media attention for the work he has done for  rickshaw pullers — it is incredibly similar to Jha’s work. Since launching in 2008, his program has helped over 300,000 pullers. He has banks finance rickshaw and stocks them with newspapers, bottled water and other items rickshaw passengers can buy. He also plasters ads on the cycle rickshaws themselves — the drivers receive some of the revenue as well as make a profit from the goods they sell.

Most importantly, Alam empowers the driver by giving them uniforms and I.D. cards and encourages weekly gatherings.

In Kolkata where the king of the road is the hand pulled rickshaw, the pullers thoroughly understand the importance of this empowerment. Hand pulled carts are incredibly important to the people of Koklata, especially when monsoon season renders all other vehicles useless.  For the pullers there,  life seems to be mildly better. Though, still wrought with diseases and a shorter lifespan. Many live together in darwas or garages that, for the most part, seem clean and comfortable though sparse.

Last year the government decided to ban hand pulled rickshaws from the road, with the help of organizations like the Calcutta Samaritan Fund, they were able to begin to fight the ban. Though many heralded 2008 as the last days of the handpullers, they are still on the road — an empowered puller can accomplish quite a bit.

“I think the rickshaws have been part of the city from way back they are needed in some parts of Kolkata negotiating the tiny lanes would be impossible for any other kind of vehicles, and because during the monsoon they’re deeply appreciated when the streets are flooded that’s when they make the most money. They become part of the culture the whole scenario of the city,” says Premila Pavamani the director of the Calcutta Samaritans.

To date, upgrading from hand pulled rickshaw to cycle rickshaw was the extent of the technological advance in the industry. For over 40 years, with the exception of making the cycle rickshaw lighter, there has been little done to ease the physical load  for pullers— until now.

With the anticipation of the Commonwealth games in October, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has developed and rolled out a fleet of solar rickshaws. The Soleckshaw, as it has been named, is a hybrid human/solar battery vehicle. With the extra boost from the battery, the driver can carry two passengers at speed of 9 mph. More than simply helping with physical labor, CSIR is providing uniforms and training — something many rickshaw drivers are denied.

The cost of the rickshaw is much higher, however,. At 20,000 – 30, 000 rupees it is out of the price range of the majority of pullers who aspire to own one, even with government subsidies.

Whether these improvements are for the benefit of the drivers or the benefit of Delhi’s public image remains to be seen. But, regardless, if the Soleckshaw becomes widespread it will be a government-sponsored way of making an enormous difference of the Indian rickshaw driver.

“We intend to replace all 8 million rickshaws with solar rickshaws.” Says CSIR director, Samir Bramachari.  Currently there are 1000 in service throughout India.

For now, the fight for survival, fair wages and for a healthy life continues to be a day-to-day struggle.

The Right to Attend School

By Lillian R. Mongeau (class of 2011)

NEW DELHI, Delhi, April 2010—Miraj, 11, works 8 hours a day and spends two hours each day in school getting a remedial education to make up for the years he had spent in a small village school in Bihar state where the teacher never came to class.  He came to Delhi with his 21 year-old brother who is the foreman of the small factory where both work.  Moving Miraj came to Delhi in part, his brother said, to get a better education.  Right now, that’s not happening but the Right To Education Commission that is newly charged with getting Miraj and the 60 million children like him back in school sits less that a mile away in downtown Delhi. For the first time in its history, India has passed a law making education mandatory for all children, regardless of caste, aged 6-14.

Lillian R. Mongeau travelled to village schools and the slums of Delhi to report on this story about the newly awarded right of all Indian children to receive an education.  Her final story is a written piece.

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.

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

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.

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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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