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Posts Tagged ‘Dharavi’

I really thought that I was being brave – darting around traffic for 2 hours in 90-degree heat in Dharavi to try and film from every angle; walking backwards to get the image of the women walking forward; holding the camera up without a tripod while my arms started to get sore. It was pretty daring for me – normally in Dharavi when I walk anywhere I spend most of my time watching my feet so that I don’t step in something unsavory or trip over a broken tile.

But I’ve got nothing on these women. They are truly something.

At the back of the rally

Today we were filming a rally – the workers and volunteers from the domestic violence prevention center were going to march through the streets in Dharavi with signs and banners while handing out leaflets and putting up signs about preventing abuse. That alone should be considered brave in the place and culture they inhabit.

But around the moment when the rally stopped right in front of a mosque, and women began talking on a bullhorn about rights while others taped signs to walls detailing how to report abuse I thought to myself: these women have chutzpah.

There’s nothing like the look on the faces of conservatively dressed Indian men watching women in saris and hijabs tell them how to act (and educating their wives on what they’re legally entitled to). It’s priceless.

I love watching the camaraderie of these women. They all come from different castes, they’re ethnically different, religiously different; many speak different native languages from each other. Two Tamil women – whom I had previously gone to a meeting with – grasped my hand when they saw me; Dharavi is practically a foreign country to where they grew up and yet here they were, marching in a rally with signs in Hindi (a language they can’t read), and welcoming a random white person who is filming them. They walked away holding hands with each other – even as they marched they still held hands, stronger together than they would be as individuals.

And for me that theme pervaded the whole march – in Dharavi, women’s rights are so tenuous; without a group behind them to remind them that they deserve better, it would be hard to go so strongly against the grain.

I don’t know if people really read or take seriously the pamphlets that they’re handing out – maybe no one does – but I think it’s worth it even if it just makes these women feel like they’re in it together. And I’m happy to be there with them – even if my arms certainly hurt the next day!

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What Doesn’t Kill You…

One time I broke my foot and I called my mother to tell her I needed to go to the hospital. She asked me how I could possibly know that it was broken without seeing an x-ray – I replied that I had heard it happen, and so I just knew.

This is how I felt when I heard my hard drive tip over and give a little whir indicating its demise. I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to save it. I watched as my Mac went from editing video files to the colorful ‘spinning ball of death,’ as it tried to recognize the disappearance of the attached drive.

I sat in shock – everything I had filmed was on the drive. But it was gone. Everyone kept telling me that there was no way something couldn’t be recovered; but like my foot, I knew that the hard drive was broken.

This happened a few weeks ago, before the trip to Sri Lanka and Kerala. It’s only now that I’ve started filming again that I’ve felt like I could write about it.

Every single appliance we’ve owned in India (other than, inexplicably, our microwave) has broken and needed to be fixed: our washing machine, our juicer, our tv satellite, our oven, our hot water heater, our router, our toaster, our toilet (appliance?), the building’s elevator. Our porch is leaking. Walls are cracked.

This has been frustrating, for sure. There are days I want to throw the proverbial toaster out the window. There are other days where Nisha implores me not to hate India based on its inability to create working appliances.

But the hard drive was really too much. I mean, really? I had to lose the work I labored over in Dharavi? It’s safe to say I was pretty upset about it for a few days. We went and filmed a few times while technicians tried to fix the drive, but I knew they weren’t going to get anything and I felt heavy with the weight of starting over. I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t even know how to articulate my frustration at all the loss of all the footage I loved so much – even if we had only shot for a few days.

But yesterday, we finally re-did one of the interviews for the first time.

We were interviewing S, one of the three women we are following for the film. S is a 25-year-old mother of three children who is a volunteer at the domestic violence center. She became active after her in-laws abused her; she and her husband had a ‘love-marriage,’ and his parents were not too happy about it. So she had found solace in counseling and decided to volunteer for the organization that helped her get through her early years in her marriage.

The first time we had filmed her, the day was hectic. S was trying to get all of her children ready, and they were still on Diwali holiday so they had all been in her hair. When we interviewed her she was nervous about the camera and unsure of her answers. I hadn’t spent as much time with S as I had with B and R (the other two women) so she wasn’t as comfortable with me.

Yesterday though, it was like a second chance. S was excited because it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. Balloons and streamers made from lined writing paper adorned her one-room home. She seemed more comfortable because she already knew what the drill was – she understood that I would be filming her housework; she knew what the questions would be. When the interview was over my translator remarked that this interview was so much better than the first.

So there it was: my silver lining. I had been dreading doing the interviews again. After all, it’s not an easy set-up. We have to turn off the fans so the noise won’t seep into the interview – in a windowless small room, you can imagine how hot it gets. I have to stand, since no one has chairs in their crowded homes. And most importantly, I don’t know really what’s happening – I don’t want my translator to interrupt the subject’s train of thought by telling me what she’s saying, so for most of the time I stand and stare, listening to a language that I can’t understand and mostly just making sure that the audio is working and that the interviewee stays in the shot. Other than that, I’m shifting my weight in a hot room listening to jibberish trying to ignore how much I’m sweating for an hour-and-a-half interview.

But despite these discomforts, doing the interview over had only been a positive. The interview was better. The film will be better. In a weird way, that makes the loss of the hard drive okay. Once again, India has pushed my buttons and led me to a breaking point only to remind me that I’m stronger than I sometimes think I am.

But for now I think I’ll be buying a new hard drive once I get back to the US. I’m still not sold on Indian appliances.

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I started to feel like the literal wicked witch of the west.

I wanted to interview B – one of the senior field workers at the NGO in Dharavi – outside on her stoop. Besides desiring outdoor light instead of a windowless interior, her house had the added bonus of being painted sea-foam green with a red door and she was in a yellow sari. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I should have guessed that white person in kurta + camera and tripod + Dharavi would equal difficulties. But the good light and the colorful background seduced me.

By the time we had started filming 30 people had crowded around us. B happened to live on one of the main lanes in her section of Dharavi, and so there was more open space than in most other parts of the sprawling slum. It stopped feeling that way once I had ten children breathing down my neck gawking at my view-finder. And every time one of them giggled or whispered (and I subsequently heard it coming through the audio in my headphones) I would turn around, put my finger over my mouth and make a clear ‘shush’ gesture.

It didn’t have the desired effect. Either the children would start laughing at my face (literally) or the adults around them would start to announce loudly in Hindi that everyone should be quiet (or so my translator K informed me). It went this way for most of the hour-long interview.

But after all the shushing and hand-gestures and mockery from children, we did end up with a great interview from B. She was lucky enough to have come from a supportive family – her parents had raised her in a very unorthodox home where both parents were active in community organizing and women were viewed as mostly equal to the men. For a woman in her 40’s to have grown up like this in Dharavi is pretty rare.

But it instilled in B a desire to do social work. After she was married, she originally started volunteering with a group in her husband’s neighborhood (their particular area of Dharavi is for people who specialize in pottery-making). She said that in the beginning, her neighbors ostracized her. But since she loved her work, she didn’t care.

Her volunteer group eventually started working with the domestic violence prevention NGO (the one we’re making the film for) and eventually B began to work for them. She enjoyed being the person that women in her community came to, and she didn’t see her job as work. She said most nights, women come in and out of her house at all hours seeking her advice.

When the interview ended, sure enough, a woman was there, waiting to talk. The woman explained that her son-in-law was beating her daughter and the mother was worried that she wasn’t going to get help. As they went inside to talk, I hesitated. I certainly want to intrude on the conversation. But the woman indicated that she didn’t mind.

So I stood and filmed. I asked K to wait outside so there would be as few people ‘eavesdropping’ as possible. But even without understanding the words it was clear that B was the right woman for the job. She listened, placing her hand on the woman’s hands as she spoke. When the woman began to cry B cupped her hands around her face and said nothing, but it seemed to me that the gesture was meant to convey that she had strength enough for them both. When the woman was done explaining B began to talk – quietly, but with the sheer force of a woman who believed she could solve the unsolvable. When the woman got up to leave she took B’s hand in hers and held it for a long moment.

We went back outside and I told K to tell the woman that I appreciated being able to film the conversation. I tried to joke that since I don’t speak Hindi, I didn’t know the secrets in she was sharing anyway. She smiled and put her hand on mine, which was still clutching my camera.

As she walked away, she seemed stronger – empowered with the ability to improve her daughters life, or at least knowing that there was someone strong standing behind her.

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Through the Lens

I felt a tugging at my kurta. I looked down and saw a smiling face staring back at me. She reminded me of myself when I was ten: gawky, wearing a neon blue shirt and bright red jeans with a blunt haircut and bangs that were cut unevenly – although, I never had sported a gold and pink nose-ring. This tiny person just wasn’t the picture I’d had in mind of the person who would be meeting us to take us on this particular trip through the maze of residential Dharavi.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – R, one of the field workers at the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi we’d been working with, had told us she was sending her daughter to get us. And while R was only 26 years old, I knew her eldest was 10. But it was still daunting to watch this little 50 lb girl confidently navigate the way from the hot sunny streets outside the hospital where met into the dark, confusing tangle of houses.

We were finally about to start filming – after months of research, waiting for equipment, delayed meetings, and permission slips signed by the husbands (yes, this was still a requirement for a women’s health organization in order for filming to be allowed), I felt like I understood what these women were doing enough to tell their story. We had decided that we would follow three of the field workers to illustrate the work being done to eradicate domestic violence in Dharavi. All of them had grown up in Dharavi and all of them could have stayed at home like so many other women here– but they had decided to wake up every morning and combat an issue that is so entrenched it’s hard to fathom attitudes changing.

So we were starting with R. We were going to go to her house, film her morning routine and then interview her in her home. I was going with K, my translator, who was going to have to conduct the interviews, since none of the women spoke English. I was nervous about not having control over the interview, even if I had written the questions. I was nervous about not being able to properly shoot a space too small to capture. I was nervous that I couldn’t ever really tell the story properly, since I was so foreign and so clearly outside. But I was certainly going to try my best.

R’s daughter brought us to their home. It was a five-foot by five-foot room, covered top to bottom in lilac tiles. The bed took up a third of the apartment – it was a steel frame cut short so it could fit exactly from end to end of the room. R, her husband, and their three children all slept in this bed, in their windowless house, with one fan every night. When I came in R was lighting incense for a statue of a Hindu god that she had to stand on her bed to reach because it was up in one of the few cupboards the room had. She and her husband had been able to afford a fridge and a television – and the two youngest children were sitting on the bed watching a dubbed Hindi version of Looney Tunes. I watched as Bugs Bunny chewed on a carrot and leaned in to say, “What’s up Doc?”, although the words came out as whatever the equivalent in Hindi was.

R stepped off the bed and greeted us. She told K that she was just going to do her morning routine and we could film whatever we liked. I felt sort of voyeuristic taking out my camera, but I kept reminding myself that she wanted us to be there, she wanted us to make a film about the subject she worked so hard for every day, and she had no qualms sharing her life.

We all danced around each other in the small space over the next two hours as R painstakingly completed all the household chores (while her husband mostly sat and played with the children). She cleaned everything top to bottom. She went out and gathered water. She gave each child a bucket shower with the water out in the alleyway because there wasn’t enough space in the house. She washed all the dishes in the alleyway, crouched down, scrubbing each meticulously. She came in cut onions and coriander to make a morning pulao for her family and offered some to K and myself. Her portable gas stove took up the entire small counter.

While we were eating, the kids came over to study my camera and play with my iphone. They giggled and pushed each other around – I couldn’t help feeling like their games and actions were so familiar even if I couldn’t understand the words. Two older girls and a toddler son – just like how my family had been. The sisters tickled each other and poked each other, giggling at the games and pushing each other around every time their parents stopped looking.

It’s a conflicting feeling, watching a woman in Dharavi’s morning routine from the lens of a white, privileged person. You don’t want to glorify it by saying, “Oh, they are so happy. They don’t seem to care that they are poor. They work hard and love each other.” But you don’t want to diminish it by saying, “How can they live like that? How can people survive without space or light or privacy? How can this powerhouse woman, who I’ve spent so much time with over the last few months, possibly find the strength to do this every single day?”. The truth seems to lie somewhere in-between that – it’s not beautiful and its not impossible. It’s not a glorified life of poverty but it’s also not a miserable existence. This is life.

R’s husband left after breakfast- he works ‘cutting fabric for pants.’ R’s kids were out of school for Diwali so she instructed them to either leave or keep quiet while we set up the interview. R sat on her bed and K and I sat on the floor – although K had to kneel and try and keep herself on R’s eye level so it wouldn’t look weird on camera. It was assumed that no one around us would have a chair she could use.

And so she began talking – it was really hard for me, to sit back and hope for the best as my interview took place, essentially, without me. Because I didn’t want to interrupt the interview, K couldn’t translate for me until R finished answering each question fully, and even then she only gave me a summary, since I thought it would be awkward to have long pauses for R between questions. When I interview someone I normally can listen out to make sure the question has been answered, or whether I need to rephrase it to get a little bit more – here I’ll only find out whether it worked or not once everything is transcribed and translated.

But I was able to understand the basics of R’s story: her husband – the one who I’d marveled at moments before for his tenderness towards his wife and children – had previously had a habit of beating his young wife. R had confided to an aunt about the beatings and she directed R towards the non-profit she now works for. Initial counseling was difficult – her husband didn’t think he was doing anything socially unacceptable – but eventually he came around. She feels lucky, because so many of the women she sees now can never convince their husband that anything is wrong. R eventually began volunteering and was hired by the NGO a year ago. She doesn’t think violence will ever come close to being eradicated. But she’s hoping that they can make even a small difference.

When the interview ended we thanked R for letting us in and sharing her story. She smiled, we said goodbye, and made our way back into the alley.

As we put our shoes back on, K looked up.

“Can you imagine stepping outside your house and not knowing whether it was night or day?” she said. It was true – the layers of sheet-metal and drying clothing and extra stories and tarp all made it very dark and difficult to see the sky, even though we were outside of the house.

“I can’t,” I said honestly. But the thought was interrupted as R came out too, purse in hand, ready to walk us back out to the street. She led the way.

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Book of My Own

Yesterday was one of my proudest days since moving to India.

As I’ve written about before, I recently went back to the US for family reasons.  It was jarring. To go from a place where poverty is in your face and most people around you have very little, into the crisp clean wealthy world of American life was fairly overwhelming.

And it made me really look at what we own in a different light. While I was sitting at home in Charleston, I was especially drawn to all the books that were sitting unused on our bookshelves.  I couldn’t help but think of all the time I’ve been spending in Dharavi. Wouldn’t just one of these books be an inspiration for a child who has so little to call their own? Didn’t we all as children read the same book over and over again anyway? (I certainly read Goodnight Moon more times than I can count).

So the thought marinated for a bit. Why couldn’t we somehow get these unused books to people here in India?

Children with their new books!

From that initial germ of a thought came the concept for Book of My Own, a project a few friends and I have started to encourage expats and travelers to bring old books from the US for kids in need here. We believe that book ownership is empowering – by having a book that is theirs these children can remain inspired even when school lets out for the day.

The idea has spread more quickly than we imagined. Within a few weeks we already had two travelers bring books. And yesterday, we really got started. We gave out books to 30 students in a kindergarten classroom in Dharavi.

A child holding onto his new book

It was amazing to watch the kids’ faces as they picked out the book that they wanted to keep. Some of them clutched to their books once they got one. Others immediately plopped down and started reading and pointing pictures out to their friends.

When we had story time their enthusiasm was even clearer – every page was a question. Why is that lion there? What is happening next? Why does that tree look like that? Will it all turn out ok in the end? These are kids that are engaged, excited and ready to learn, in spite of all the difficulties that surround them in their daily life. They only spend four hours in their classroom each day. Now they get to keep learning and thinking at home.

Reading to the kids

I hadn’t written about this before because I didn’t want to get my hopes up that the kids would care about it as much as I thought they would. I didn’t want to seem self-congratulatory when we hadn’t really done anything.  But I’m going to go out on a limb now and say I think we really did make a small change in each of those 30 kids lives. Maybe it’ll be nothing; maybe the excitement will have vanished by today. But I get the sense that those books are going to get well worn from being read over and over again, just like my copies of Where the Wild Things Are or Eloise eventually did. And in a place like Dharavi where the small things count, I’m suspecting this will have a large impact.

We’re just getting started. I’m hoping that within a few months 30 kids will become 300 kids. But no matter what, yesterday was a great day.

(And, as a plug, if you’re at all interested in donating or bringing books or you just want to know more you can always go to our website: http://www.bookofmyown.com)

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The Choices We Make

When I was in high school we took a class called ‘life issues’, which was essentially meant to be a sex-ed class coupled with self-esteem and health issues. Everyone joked about it and laughed off the content (what teenager isn’t uncomfortable in a glorified sexual health class?) but the school made it very clear that these were important issues that we needed to understand.

I mention this now because I was thinking about ‘life issues’ quite a lot as I sat in a small room with no windows in Dharavi, sweating through my long sleeved cotton kurta and long linen pants, watching a field worker explain sexual education and health to a group of Muslim teenagers – most of whom were married and many of whom already had children.

At this particular meeting (I’ve now been to so many I’m starting to get the hang of it), the field worker was fearless. Here was a Hindu woman in a sari trying to explain female anatomy to a group of women whose only visible anatomy was their face and hands. She had started on the topic of periods. Did anyone in the room want to open the discussion by relaying when they got their first period?

Silence.

My translator piped up, telling her story to try and break the ice. It seemed to make the girls less uncomfortable as they laughed and giggled at her trials and tribulations. They started sharing more about themselves.

But then the conversation took a more somber tone: “How many of you feel that your periods make you dirty?” they were all asked. Everyone raised their hands. I was really surprised – how can you have given birth to a child and still feel ashamed about your body’s natural reproductive cycles?

But the field worker was not at all surprised by this response. She began a very stern tirade – she explained that this was a beautiful and natural part of our humanity. She was adamant that they not let their religious views lead to unsanitary practices.

Apparently, in their religion (or their practice of their religion within their particular culture), when a woman has her period she is considered unclean. Anything that she touches becomes impure and she cannot go near her mosque. I had seen similar signs relating to Hindu temples in Indonesia, instructing menstruating women to stay away, but it was amazing to me that this practice is so widespread across varying religions.

Most of these women could not afford sanitary pads (and tampons don’t even exist here for anyone) so they used rags. And when the rags were dirty they would often clean them and then hide them away for drying. This apparently can lead to infections when the rag is used the next time, because without sufficient space to dry, the wet rag can become a hotbed for bacteria.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to acknowledge that this is a very uncomfortable and graphic blog post. But it is astounding the things we take for granted – I rarely consider my period because the modern marvel of tampons makes it as insignificant as possible. These women are getting infections in large numbers because they do not have access to something as simple and cheap as sanitary pads, and their shame about having their period stops them from drying their rags in the sun or out above a flame or even on a drying rack. It’s just astounding to me the number of hardships these women face every day.

I watched as the field worker continued to encourage and explain sanitary habits. The women listened, uncomfortably but attentively. Some of the women began to open up and ask questions.

One woman, who is 15 and has been married for 6 months, had not yet gotten her period. She had not met her husband because apparently in her tradition you don’t meet for one full year. She was worried that if she didn’t get her period soon that she wouldn’t be able to continue being married.

The field worker kindly explained that if she never got her period it would not mean she couldn’t stay married, but it would unfortunately mean that she could not have children. The woman looked stricken – apparently she wasn’t confident that she could stay married without the ability to have children.

Again, as with most of the other meetings I have been to with this particular group, the discussion had nothing to do with it’s stated goal of reducing domestic violence – it was just another way to bring people into the organization. Little by little, person by person, they just try to help in the many many places where help is needed.

As the discussion came to a close and most of the women (girls? How do your characterize young teenagers with such adult responsibilities?) said goodbye, we were left with the girl who had hosted us in her home. She was 15 and her mother had ‘chaperoned’ the discussion.

She had stayed behind to ask the field worker about computer classes- she wanted learn but she only could read and write in Urdu, and all of the classes were in Hindi or English.

I asked why she had chosen to go to an Urdu-only school.

She laughed and started talking. My translator said she was explaining that it wasn’t a choice. The only school she could go to was a madrassa, and the only thing they learned was the Koran.

“You mean that’s what you learn most of the time?” I asked.
“No,” my translator translated. “It’s the only thing we ever study.”
“Can’t you go to another school?”
“There is no other school available. And the men in my family wouldn’t let me go to another school anyway.”

This is the point at which I started to get angry. She and her mother and I then began a thirty-minute discussion where I kept asking why and they kept laughing at me and answering that, “This is just the way it is.”

She couldn’t go to a different school because there wasn’t one that would take her.
She couldn’t take lessons in English because she wouldn’t have time for that and the men in the family wouldn’t allow it.
She couldn’t wait to get married because that would bring shame to her family.
Her school couldn’t teach anything other than Urdu because they could only spend time reading the Koran.
She couldn’t get a job because the men wouldn’t allow it.

I just kept sitting there stunned, trying to find some alternative. Could these women really just allow themselves to be subjugated in this way when they understood what was happening? I asked what kept them from just leaving.

“This is our home. This is our life. Would you want to start completely over and never be allowed to see your family or anyone in your community again?”

I answered that no, I would not want that. That seemed to settle it for them. I was starting to wonder if I had overstepped, so I apologized for asking so many questions. They, again, just laughed at me.

“It’s ok. We understand that you live your life differently.”

I nodded, thinking we were having a moment. But then the mother started saying something that my translator wasn’t translating. I asked her what they were saying.

“You don’t want me to tell you – now they’re asking if you can help them in any way. They want you to maybe help the men in their family find better jobs or for you to give them some money.”

I guess our moment was over. I tried to respond that I was going to be helping by making the film about the organization. They didn’t seem moved.

I walked out still feeling angry. It’s one thing to not understand that there was another world out there. It was another to know that other people are free and to just calculate that it’s not worth it for you.

The meeting and my conversation swam in my mind as I walked out. These women can’t even stand up for themselves by demanding that their rags dry out in the open, let alone demand for education or the ability to work. It was the first time I had left a meeting where I didn’t feel inspired or empowered. So now they knew about their reproductive systems and proper menstrual hygiene – so what? Would they even use the information they would be given? Or would they just continue to be under-educated child brides with no ability to break their own cycle?

I said this to the field worker. I asked her how she keeps going every single day when there are so many battles to fight and change comes in such small incremental steps?

“Because it needs to be done,” she replied. Yes it most certainly does.

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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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