Monday, January 22, 2007

An Encounter with Extreme Poverty

On December 5th afternoon a severe fire broke out in the slum colony of Bawana (a village on the outskirts of Delhi ) razing over 350 jhuggies and completely devastating the lives of more than 2500 odd inhabitants including several hundred small children and women. The tragedy had severely hit these families who lost everything, leaving them merely with 10X10 sq. feet of land to rebuild their plastic made jhuggies, or rather, rebuild their lives yet again. Fortunately no causality was caused due to the fire but what could be more tragic than an unending series of extreme mental and emotional turbulences for these poor resettled slum dwellers from Yamuna Pushta, who have lived unsettled lives for several decades.

That same week I got the opportunity to make a visit to the fire-affected colony to assess the situation there and assist in the relief work. Though I had seen and heard a lot about the slums and like most of urban youth I was also pretty confident of my media based knowledge of slums but this was my first ever ACTUAL visit to any such place. The real picture was entirely different and far more disturbing than what I had heard or seen on television. The visit gave me one of the biggest jolts of my life and exposed to me the other face of Delhi , which is seldom discussed in the midst of much trumpeted 8% GDP growth rate of this country. This face is rather well concealed while adeptly showcasing the cosmetically or rather inhumanly developed ultra modern face of Delhi .

We started the relief work early in the morning. We walked down the intricate four feet wide lane, which gradually widened into a few hundred square meters of land housing 500 odd jhuggies inhabiting more than four thousand people. I was totally appalled by the gigantic cluster of human beings in such an extremely small space, perhaps one of the densest human inhabitation existing on earth. This whole place was indeed smaller than the courtyards of many rich and famous of this metropolis. The size of each jhuggi was even smaller than the size of a standard double bed with eight people struggling to somehow accommodate themselves and spend their whole life in it. This scene reminded me of my recent visit to a concentration camp in Poland called Maidanek where during World War II several hundred prisoners were stuffed together in small wooden huts without even basic sanitation facility. In those camps many used to die of severe suffocation, extreme stench and various microorganism diseases. At Maidanek I had to make some effort to visualize that sixty year old tragedy but certainly not here at Bawana.

After reaching that place I spoke to some of the local residents there and could easily sense the feeling of somberness and helplessness prevailing there. Though most of the male members were out to work for daily bread, the women came up and spoke of their sordid tale and the extreme poverty they are living with. It was quite sad to know that with an average family income of Rs. 2000, more than a quarter goes in commuting for work as these people are thrown to the outskirts of Delhi approximately 50 km from the City Centrum. It was poignant to look into the eyes of several old women, widows, handicapped and small children standing in a queue waiting eagerly for their turn to collect their Rs. 300 ( U.S. $ 7) worth of relief packet that meant so much for their whole family.

After spending a whole day there and making a small contribution in the relief work, I got into the car to begin my return trip. I was so much dismayed to see the living condition in those jhuggies that it was very difficult to come out of that feeling so soon. The car seemed much bigger than those dingy jhuggies each housing 8 people for their whole life. Driving down the 15 km long stretch of the smooth road connecting to the main city and surrounded by beautiful lush greenery on both sides evoked the philosophical person hidden in me.

On the way back home several questions came across my mind viz. What was the mistake of those small children who were born in that ill-fated E- Block of Bawana? Whose fault is it if any? Parents, Government or was it in their Destiny? Will they be able to extricate themselves from this vicious circle of extreme poverty and hence out of that E- Block of Bawana, ever in their lives? What is the certainty that these hapless slum dwellers won't be displaced yet again if in case Delhi hosts another mega sporting event? What I had seen was may be just the tip of the iceberg? Is there more to see? Is the uncontrolled and ever-growing population of this country the root cause for all problems? Is it due to the systematic failure of the Government policies? Is it the newly imposed capitalism responsible for it? But what will happen to the progress of the nation under extreme socialism? Can there be a trade off between the two? If yes then how? And many more….Finding myself too small to think of any answer to these difficult questions, I rather chose to sleep quietly and comfortably in my warm and spacious car.

By the time I woke up we had reached Connaught Place . I was wondering why this place, which is so famous for its bustling life, glittering neon lights and sky rocketing buildings, was suddenly lacking in its sheen. Perhaps now my illusion WAS, shattered as I had incidentally just seen a contrasting face of Delhi with my naked eyes, which had never been this real to me till now.

Written by Harsh Agarwal


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Your tomorrow...

[ 10 Jan, 2007 0000hrs IST TIMES NEWS NETWORK ]

The Day After Tomorrow, the Hollywood film portraying a future where global warming causes freaky weather, is playing not in a cinema near you but right in your backyard. Even as Delhi woke up yesterday to near-freezing temperature, and Chandigarh recorded zero degree Celsius, a balmy Washington experienced the flowering of cherry blossoms and chirping of birds bang in the middle of winter, the season of ice and snow.

Whether or not climate doomsayers are right — that the planet is headed for sure disaster — there is no doubt that weather patterns worldwide are indeed changing. Only, this time, it is not due to natural reasons but because of human activity releasing high volumes of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. International initiatives to deal with climate change are well-intentioned:

A Kyoto Protocol that exhorts member countries to cut back their emissions, an AP6 (Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate), or a Montreal Protocol that restricts release of ozone-depleting substances. But global treaties and annual conferences don't matter that much if, on the ground, little is accomplished. Great planning doesn't translate into great results unless the macro gets translated into the micro.

Micro-management is the key to both adaptation and mitigation. Often the sum of individual action has far-reaching results. Conservation is best implemented when it begins at home: Turning off lights and other electrical appliances when not needed, recycling things, enrolling in car pools, opting for smaller, eco-friendly vehicles, using public transport oftener and capturing solar energy to heat water — all these help minimise consumption of energy.

At the community level, each residential zone could set up a wind farm where conditions are suitable. Tree planting in common areas, maintenance of public parks and woodlands will create carbon sinks that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. Residential and office buildings built with green technology will make maximum use of natural light and air to minimise use of electricity.

In the final analysis, you are the environment; what you do affects your immediate environment. Constructing a macro picture of the world's climate pattern is a tedious and often elusive task, and it involves studying innumerable parameters and probabilities. However, at the micro level, freaky weather can be countered with individual action. In totality, this might help us buck the trend of global warming.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Should airguns be banned to protect animals?

In 2000 People for Animals went to the Delhi High Court asking for airguns not to be sold at all or, if they were to be sold , they should be sold in gun shops and licenced. This was part of a larger case in which we asked for the gun licences that are issued so freely in the name of crop protection be banned. In 2002 we won the case and got a remarkable judgment from the Chief Justice of the High Court Hon'ble Justice S.B.Sinha and Hon’ble Justice A.K.Sikri.

These airguns that people buy in toyshops are not toys. They are weapons. Children who are given these guns by very foolish parents do not use them on inanimate objects or even in the house. Imagine the hell they would have to pay if they shot an expensive vase to bits.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, in Section 11, makes criminal any person from causing pain or suffering to any animals. But invariably airguns, air rifles, airpistols are used on helpless small animals, in particular birds, by children. The victim does not die immediately. The pellet creates a gaping hole in the small body and the victim takes hours, even a few days, to die. The hole becomes infected, flies lay their eggs in it and these turn into maggots that eat the victim's body. Cows or donkeys make easy targets. When they boast to their parents about their kills, and the parent who has given them the gun merely smiles, then that child is lost to civilized society - we have created a monster.

At the very least it teaches children that violence is easy and condoned by adults. It teaches them that all species other than humans are dispensable.

It is not just animals. I have seen children using it on servants and poorer children. I have seen them laugh when they hide and shoot at random passersby. They often do not tell their parents. This is extremely dangerous.

The torture and killing of little animals can be an early sign of a psychological disorder. The shooters are often just showing off to their friends. This leads to a situation where violence becomes power and then other children ask their parents for guns as well so they can be part of the group.

Some children intentionally hurt animals because they enjoy hurting things, or because it makes them feel powerful. Many of these people would hurt other people if they could get away with it; they just choose to hurt animals because animals are more helpless than people. Killing animals is simply training for when they move on to larger people. Children are not stupid: They know they are being cruel, and when they excuse it by simply saying it is a game, these children who subconsciously believe that violence is o.k. grow up to be insensitive and more violent than normal people.

I am sure Pataudi and Salman Khan were given these guns as children and you can see the result now. The jails are filled with violent criminals who started out life, according to every survey done, by killing small animals and birds as children. It also puts other children in jeopardy.

On 13th July 1962 the Government of India brought out a notification exempting airguns/ airrifles/ airpistols from the provisions of the Arms Act. Obviously no bureaucrat or politician applied his mind while passing this arbitrary order. For while a child of any age is allowed to possess and use airguns, and indeed buy them from toyshops or roadside vendors, if the same gun is used by a Rifle Club, it is mandatory that the person should be an adult above 21 years and all the rules of the Arms Act apply to him/her!

So children are exempt but not adults??

The government, we argued, has a duty to create conditions in which children develop a humane and civilized character, the kind of people who assist rather than harm. But this exemption is completely against that constitutional duty. Article 51 A imposes a fundamental duty " to have compassion for living creatures”. The allowance of weapons to children violates this.

The Government in its defense argued that these airguns were allowed as long as they did not perforate a target made of wood of the thickness of one inch. However, children don't use these on one thick wooden piece. They use them on birds. A sparrow has a skin of less than one millimeter. In the judgement the judges have said " it is difficult to comprehend as to why such a category or firearms would be made freely available in the market." " It does not stand to any reason as to why air rifles,air guns and air pistols which can be used for the same purposes as other guns would be taken out of the purview of the Arms act" The judges also noted "there cannot be any doubt whatsoever that the provisions of the prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 would be violated" by allowing these guns to be freely sold.

Who do you think opposed us in this case (and the judges found this very curious too) - The Ministry for Environment and Forests, then headed by the DMK minister, Baalu! The lawyer gave examples from Nagaland where boys go on bird shooting sprees at the age of 10 - to the extent that the Chief Secretary of Nagaland had contemplated the regulation and sale of airguns to the general public, the Environment Ministry argued that these were non lethal weapons and suggested awareness and education as a remedy instead of banning guns! They were supported by the Ministry of Agriculture. The Bureau of Police Research and development added their two bits by saying that the muzzle of the guns should be reduced so that the energy of the guns would come down.

The Court ordered a consultation between the Home and other Ministries to take place. Months passed. Not a single meeting took place. We went back to court. The Court realised that the government was going to take no action. They passed an order quashing the notification GSR No 988 dated 13-07-62 "issued under subclause (vii) of clause (b) of subsection (i) of section 2 of the Arms Act by the Central Government whereby and whereunder air guns, air rifles and air pistols have been exempted from all the regulations and controls as provided under the Arms Act. This judgment applies to the whole of India.If you see any airguns being sold, you can have the shopkeeper arrested.

Maneka Gandhi

To join the animal welfare movement contact Smt Gandhi at or 14,Ashoka Road, New Delhi -110001