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Posts Tagged ‘corruption’

Drawing the Line

Today in Dharavi I got the giggles. And perhaps that seems strange on a day where the heavy monsoon forced me to wade through ankle-deep puddles consisting of rainwater, dirt, garbage and inevitably sewage. I felt as wet and as dirty as the huge rats that scurried through the small moats dug in the side of the narrow residential pathways.

But I couldn’t help but get the giggles.

The staircase up to the house

It started with a meeting and a ladder. A field worker brought me and my translator to the building where we would be attending a discussion on ration cards. When we arrived the field worker pointed up at a steep metal ladder. To get into the home of the woman hosting the discussion, we would have to climb a nearly vertical incline in the pouring rain. I said a little prayer and climbed up – this was, after all, the climb that every member of this family undertook multiple times every day.

Safely inside I washed my feet off and sat on the cold stone ground. My whole body was wet and a fan was humming right above my head – it was my first time since arriving in India that I’d actually been cold. I almost relished the feeling.

I looked around at the home. It was larger than some others I had been to, but more sparsely furnished. There were no beds or refrigerators or televisions. A teenage boy slept on a mat on the ground, oblivious to the meeting going on around him. Our host explained that he was her son. I blinked back at her, unsure of how to respond. This woman looked about 30 years old.

“He’s your son?” my translator asked in Hindi. The woman laughed.

“I know, we don’t look too far apart in age. But he is 18 and I am 33. I got married to my husband when I was 14.”

This sparked a discussion about everyone’s children – I found out that the 26-year-old field worker had an 11-year-old son. She passed around her mobile phone to show photos of her 11, 5 and 3 year old children. I guess at 25 I’m practically a spinster in Dharavi.

After this small-talk, the meeting began.  As with most of these meetings, the topic was not domestic violence (the non-profit’s stated purpose). Instead, today it was ration cards.

ration 'card', more like a book!

It’s hard to even delve into the statistics on ration cards in India without feeling a bit overwhelmed. In India, if you are ‘BPL’ (or Below the Poverty line) you qualify for a ration card.  The ration card entitles you to subsidized wheat, rice, dal, gas, oil and sugar.

But it’s shocking to hear what BPL actually is. While the exact number depends on the state you live in, to quality for BPL you have to earn less than 30,000 rupees annually for a family (approx $640). That works out to about $50 a month for an entire family to survive – and the average family in India is 5 or 6 people, which means each person is living on less than $10 a month.  330 million people qualify as BPL and theoretically receive ration cards. (Just FYI, these stats come from Indian government websites, which may or may not be totally accurate).

If you put this in perspective, our normal ‘Western’ heuristic of extreme poverty looks at individuals living on below $1 a day. However, about 45% of Indians fit into that category. If you expand the criteria to $2 a day 80% of India is included. By contrast, to qualify as BPL you would have to live on around 30 cents a day.

You would think that existing on 30 cents a day would be enough to go through, but apparently the Public Distribution System (which runs the ration cards scheme) is infected with corruption from the top down. And as such many (if not most) families have difficulties getting their rations.

The women we were speaking with faced all kinds of problems: The proprietor of one woman’s Fair Price Shop (where rations can be purchased) insisted that each purchase came with a 50 rupee (approx $1) surcharge. Another claimed he had run out of oil and had not supplied it for months. Another claimed that if the women complained he could take away their ration cards. And almost all received much less than their allotted rations for the month. It seemed to be widely known and accepted that the shopkeepers stole the remaining rations and sold them on the black market.

So the field worker began to explain to the women their rights – they could demand to see the price list, they could demand to write in the shop’s government-issued complaints booklet, their ration cards could not be taken away by anyone.  She said she was going to take them all to their Fair Price Shops to show them where all the items were located and to make sure the owners understood that they now knew their rights.

And so off we all went, down the treacherous staircase, and further into the streets. We were the most colorful and spirited mob of women you could find – 15 Indian women and one white woman in saris and kurtas, all soaked, still trying to avoid the rain – but with spirits bolstered by the newfound knowledge.

Some of the women in front of one shop

And it was on this trip that I got the giggles – because try to imagine a large group of women approaching one man who has systematically screwed them over time and again.  And then imagine his face once he realizes what’s happening.

I watched as the field worker stood in front of him and started explaining to the women what their rights were. She demanded to see his complaint book, she demanded to see his price list – and all he could do was watch and cooperate, looking angry and sheepish all at once.

“His face is damn priceless!” my translator whispered to me as we watched. She apparently also found the situation highly amusing.

And clearly this wasn’t going to solve the problems that existed on the state and national level – politicians and government workers are still going to steal rations and the money for rations. Our one day wouldn’t solve that.

But it was hard not to feel empowered by the scenario. These shopkeepers at the ground level had been put on notice. People who deserved to get food subsidies were closer to getting what they needed.  And all it took was a little bit of education – these women just needed to know that the shopkeepers couldn’t hurt them. They needed to know what they were entitled to.

How could I not feel good watching that? The problem wasn’t fixed, but these women had certainly taken a large step.

And so I just stood back, let the rain soak me through, and laughed while watching the tiny victory taking place in front of me.

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Late last night I saw a full-fledged brawl between ten men break out in the middle of a main street. Somehow, though, this wasn’t the place where I came into contact with the Mumbai police.

The night had started promisingly. We headed down to South Bombay to go a birthday party of a friend. It was nice to escape the smoky bars of Bandra and get a change of scene.

Everyone was having a good time, but as the early evening deepened into late night, there was a knock on the door.   In walked two serious-looking men dressed in khaki from their yellow-embellished hats on their heads all the way down. They were police officers, and they were not there to join the party.

It hadn’t seemed to me like we were actually making a lot of noise – the party was just fifteen or twenty people, and while we did have music on I hadn’t noticed it being overly loud. I got the sense that we were about to be the subjects of a shakedown.

Our hosts went outside to try and talk to the officers. We had turned the music off and we were all prepared to leave, if need be. I later found out that the officers had tried to start with a game of bluff- first they wanted to take us all to jail (for what?). Then they were going to take just the host/birthday boy and his set of speakers to jail (seriously). Of course, they really just wanted a bribe.

Another friend at the party, who grew up in Bombay, tried to intervene. She thought if the cops were paid off then it just contributed to the culture of corruption. She appealed to their sense of Indian hospitality, telling them that since some of the guests at the party (ie: us) were Americans who had just moved to India, it was inhospitable to create a scene at the party. Sadly they were unmoved by this line of reasoning (although she did take down their names and vow to report them).

They were, however, moved by a payment of 2,000 rupees (about $42).

As the police left we figured it was late enough at night that we should probably leave as well. A group of us going back to Bandra hopped in the car to make our way north.

The only time in Mumbai when there is little to no traffic is in the middle of the night, so I was surprised when, only fifteen minutes into our journey, we started slowing down. I looked out the window – a huge fight was taking place.

We were on the Worli sea face on a three-lane road, but only one was moving. Parked cars and a group of men fighting one another occupied the rest. They were taking a no-holds-barred approach: a few were swinging at the others as fiercely as they could while their friends tried to hold them back. Another friend had stepped out of the fight to direct traffic (how thoughtful!). But the fighting was brutal.

I noticed, as we slowly drove by, a few brightly colored Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked at various points near the fight. I had to imagine this was a drug deal or mafia related incident (unless otherwise very wealthy people decide to stop traffic and pick fights randomly in the middle of the night).  The people fighting didn’t notice or bother any of the cars on the road driving past. They just seemed to want to pick the most dramatic place to stage their showdown.

Of course, for this incident, the police were nowhere to be found. Who are they to get involved in an underworld dispute? After all, there are important parties to break up and get paid for.

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