A model for India: HIV/AIDS education

By Patty Espinosa (class of 2012)

KOLHAPUR, India, April 2012—India is a conservative country. Talking about sex is taboo, and in remote areas of the country, so is talking about HIV and AIDS. The number of HIV infections in India is comparatively low to other developing countries, but the number of people dealing with discrimination is increasing.

But a group of young social work students from SIBER College decided to take a stand, and eliminate HIV discrimination in a nearby town. The town is a success story, but it’s still unclear if the students’ work will be a model for all of India.

Patty’s final story is a video.

An unlikely savior for Indian coffee farmers

By Brittany Schell (class of 2013)

BANGALORE, India, April 2012—In a country plagued for over a decade by farmer suicides, Seattle-based Starbucks, the global coffee scapegoat, could be an unlikely savior for Indian coffee farmers.

Specialist coffee shop chains are growing at an increasing rate in India. Cafe Coffee Day and Barista Lavazza, along with other rival cafes, have opened 1,200 shops in India over the past decade, as members of the growing middle class develop a taste for coffee. Starbucks just announced plans to open 50 new cafes in India by the end of the year.

Yet there is a gap between this prospering coffee economy and the farmers who grow the coffee beans. The coffee-growing states of Kerala and Karnataka rank among the five states with the highest rates of farmer suicide in India. More than 253,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995, and in the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka the numbers are 19,000 and 35,000 respectively.

Could a multinational company like Starbucks could help address this gap?

Brittany’s final story is a written piece and a video. 

Renting Wombs: Gay couples seek surrogate mothers in India

By Lisette Mejia (class of 2012)

MUMBAI, India, April 2012—In the past few years, gay men from the U.S. have increasingly traveled to India to have children through surrogacy. This process usually involves two Indian women: an egg donor and a surrogate. Currently, a bill sits in the Indian law ministry that could ban the process for same-sex couples – but in the mean time, they continue on with their hopes of having kids of their own and grappling with the complexity of the situation

Freedom for Indian girls, with bikes

By Molly Oleson (class of 2013)

BIHAR, India, April 2012—Imagine that you are a young girl growing up in West Bengal, India. Your village smells of spices, and coconuts and pineapples hang from the trees. Women roam through tea gardens, up to their bellies in leaves that they pluck by the handful and place in bags that rest on little head pillows.
But this is not a dreamy life…
Molly Oleson’s multimedia piece illustrates how bicycles are being used to heal and empower young survivors of sex trafficking at a remote ashram in one of India’s poorest states.

Indian mangoes: Where tradition, industry and U.S. nuclear policy collide

By Richard Parks, for Salon (class of 2011)

MUMBAI, India, June 4, 2010—India’s Alphonso mango is a fruit with an aura. It’s flavorful, aromatic, small-pitted and as smooth as silk (with none of the fibrousness of Mexican mangoes sold in the U.S.). The Vedic texts praise mangoes as the “fruit of the gods,” and the Alphonso has deservedly been dubbed the “king of fruits” for its royal taste. It can be found in Mumbai’s markets and in the Konkan Coast of southern Maharashtra, where generations of farmers have been growing the rare mango cultivar for hundreds of years.

The year 2006 might have been the turning point, though, for this divine fruit. As a carrot for India’s accepting U.S. nuclear technology and policy, George W. Bush opened the U.S. market to Alphonsos. The Indian government, anxious to brand the Konkan Coast as “India’s California,” offered subsidies for farmers who would cultivate the mangoes for export. Since then, in Ratnagiri district, production has been up more than 200 percent.

Watch the video:

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See the rest of the story published on Salon.com

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.

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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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.