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Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: The Year That It Was



 How was 2015? Sharing here a few leaves out of my diary that's full of memories - of traveling and story-telling.

January
With Village Women who Fight Traffickers




The first trip of the year took me to the villages of Lambadi people (a Nomadic tribe) in Mahabubnagar district of Telangana. Not so long ago, these villages were a notorious hub for sale and trafficking of baby girls. But today, local women are ensuring that every girl goes to school. They also fighting against child labor and child marriage. Here you can read their inspiring story - Not Without Our Daughters: Lambada Women Fight Infanticide and Child Trafficking.



February
Telling stories of India’s Development Refugees


In February, I met men, women and children of Koya and Konda – primitive forest tribes living in India’s Eastern Ghat mountain. Soon, thousands of them will become refugees as a mega dam is coming up in their homeland. Here is the link to their story  'Development refugees' resist Indian dam




But even as uncertainty is looming large over their future, the tribal community is learning skills that will keep them food-secure even in the most adverse situation. Here you can read that story "In the Shadow of Displacement, Forest Tribes Look to Sustainable Farming"

Saturday, December 05, 2015

COP21 : What can it do for Rina - a climate change refugee?

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender

 Rina Dash is an undocumented migrant worker in New Delhi. In 2008, she came here from Satkhira district of Bangladesh. There was a cyclone she says, and it destroyed her home and flooded her little farm she says. It was super cyclone Sidr, I learned - a disaster that killed over 3000 people.

After the flood water went down, nothing could be grown on the far, says Rina. So, her husband suggested that they migrate to New Delhi . 

Why Delhi? "Because we heard thee was plenty of jobs."
But when they came here, her husband found a job of a rickshaw puller. Rina, when I met her, was a janitor. She was paid as  a daily wager. They live in a juggi - a shack made of tarpaulin sheet.

Memories of a climate refugee: Rina shows the photos of her relatives who died in the cyclone. She requested me not to show her face as this could lead to her deportation as an illegal migrant
Across New Delhi, there are thousands of  undocumented migrant workers like Rina

Thursday, December 03, 2015

A ray hope for Neha at COP21

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender


 A very interesting development took place on the 3rd day of COP21: the World Bank Group announced that it would make a  US$500 million investment to support one of India's groundwater program.  India, we must remember, is the world’s largest consumer of groundwater.

The announcement made me think of Neha - the little girl in the picture - a 6th grade school student who spends several hours out of school, drawing water for the family everyday from a small pond. The quality of water - as you can see - is horrible.
A muddy pond - the main source of water for Neha


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

COP21: Can it help a HIV Positive Bimla?

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender. 


It's 2nd day of COP21. It's also World AIDS Day.  Let me bring you the story of Bimla - a young woman from Machalipatnam - a coastal town in southern India. Barely 25 year old, Bimla is a widow and lives with HIV.

What is the connection between  Bimla and COP21 or Climate Change? To understand that, you need to hear how Bimla got the virus. She was infected by her husband - a farmer who lost his farm to a cyclone in 2010 ( That cyclone - cyclone Laila, was actually one of the 60 cyclones that their state has seen in past 4 decades),

Monday, November 30, 2015

COP 21: Can it ease the burden of Durga?

21st UNFCCC Conference of the Parties or COP21 has just begun. Its THE most important climate summit of our lifetime where we expect the world to strike a climate deal - one that will be "gender responsive". On the occasion, beginning from today, I am running a 2-week blog campaign, connecting the dots among COP21, Climate Change and Gender. 


I just met Durga Rajak in Kathamndu - the capital of Nepal. She is in her early forties and runs a roadside eatery with her husband. The most popular dish in their eatery is Choila - spicy, fried duck meat served hot with flattened rice which sells for 50 Nepali rupees (about $40 cent) a plate. It's not a lot of money since a kg of meat costs 650 rupees ($6) , so, Durga always kept the expenses low by working extra hard such as  buying produces from local growers and carrying things on her motorbike, instead of employing a person.

But these days, Durga is struggling. Normally, she uses Liquefied Petroleum Gas or "cooking gas". But since the end of September, cooking gas - besides petrol and diesel -has become hard to find. So, she is now using stoves that run on kerosene. Sometimes, when kerosene is unavailable, Durga uses diesel (which she buys in the black market) in her stove.



 Its very risky and  every time she lights the stove, Durga fears a blast.

But its a risk she must take. Only a few months ago, in April, Kathmandu was hit by a massive earthquake.At that time, Durga had to close her eatery for several weeks. She had also spent nearly a month under the open sky, on little little food and water. Today she is determined to keep her business running, come whatever may. "To be dependent on others is tough," she says.

But currently she is dependent on a number of people for her survival: the cooking gas distributors, the petrol& diesel stations and also the black marketeers. How long could she go on?  She was quiet, but I could sense her answer: "as long as I can."

A thought came in my mind as I heard her story: what would have happened if Durga had a stove that ran on solar energy?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Food Waste : Writing On The Wall Just Got Bigger

This week began with some exciting news :the UN just fed some world leaders trash and that it was great.

Curious?

Ok, here is how it happened: In New York, Ban-ki-Moon , the UN Secretary General, hosted for 30 of his guests  - comprising presidents, prime ministers and royals - a lunch that was made of  food waste.

In plain words, each dish of each course on the menu - from appetizer to dessert - was made of material that was considered waste and would have ended in a trash bin.


The salad on the lunch was made from unwanted vegetable scraps, stalks and outer leaves salvaged from the waste of big food producers.

There were burgers and fries and these were made of thrown away vegetables including ends of cucumber thrown out by pickle makers. They also used 'cow corn' - corn that are considered too hard for human consumption and so are fed to cows instead.

That is not all. The bread on the lunch table was baked from

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Indian Women Adapting to Climate Change: 10 Photos You Will Like


At least 80% of my stories are on rural communities. I go to faraway hills, nomad hamlets and fishing villages and, I am always searching for signs where women in these most unheard communities are using technology for a better life. What I find is always amazing:  women, most of them with little or no education, are using technology to fight for their rights, health, freedom and an improved livelihood. Below are 10 photos of how women in villages are using technology to adapt to climate change.

Tracking the weather


 As the climate becomes more erratic every passing day, rural communities are finding it increasingly tough to rely on their traditional knowledge of weather. So, they are now learning to monitor it. In this photo, taken in Medak district of southern India, women of a village are using a mini weather station. Here, they track the movement of wind, cloud and measure temperature and rainfall - everything that will later help them plan their farming activities.
 Using mobile phone technology


 Mobile phones are immensely popular in India. But these women are using mobile phones  in the smartest way possible: sharing information on weather, availability of seeds, fertilizer, soil testing facilities and so on.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Water water everywhere: Not a farmer to spot!

I just returned from the World Water Week in Stockholm, the Swedish capital.

Organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), the week-long event was focusing on Water and it's intricate and crucial link to development worldwide. It was, as I learned, the 25th year of the event.
The Prime Minister of Sweden addressing the participants at the inaugural session of the World Water Week.

As you would expect in a global event like this, there were participants from different walks of development and water: scientists, finance experts, engineers, political leaders and activists and media personnel like me. There were talks of innovation, technology, finance, aid, collaboration, policy, regulation, transparency and so on. We also heard some country heads talk about some of the burning issues of our time: climate change, disasters, conflict and the migrant influx.

But there was something crucial that was missing: the voice of the farmer. And it came as a surprise - of a rather shocking nature. After all, this was an event discussing water and it's role in the world's development, especially the Sustainable Development Goals which are soon to replace the Millennium Development Goals.


Food production and food security are always the key to  a sustainable world. And everyone was talking of this - except the food grower himself. Irony much?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Youth Climate Leadership: Lets Also Mind the Sharks

A couple of weeks back, I was in Singapore's United World College of South East Asia, listening to a roomful of young men and women talking passionately about climate change. As they spoke, a sharp, almost painful, thought struck my mind: "are we serious about transformative leadership here, or, is this just another ritualistic act?"

Now, why did I think of this? A little background might help. 

The youths I heard were from the ASEAN member states (If you didn't know already, these are Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar) and they were here to take part in ASEAN Power Shift 2015 - a 3-day  training workshop on climate change and the  upcoming Paris Climate Conference (COP 21).
Youths at ASEAN Power Shift 2015. Photo credit: Young NTUC

It was a pretty diverse group:: some were graduate students in a university while others were still in junior high schools. Some already had a lot of knowledge about climate change and erratic weather, while others only had a faint idea of what it might be. And, as I found out later, only about half of  them lived in cities, with 24x7 internet access while  the other half lived in the provinces with little or no access to digital connectivity. 

Yet here they were - bound by a common thread: concern for a fast degrading environment in their respective countries and a strong wish to set it right

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Smart Sanitation: Shimla Sets an Example

A couple of days back, I read this really great news about Shimla - a hill station in the north of India: the popular tourist hub is aiming for smart sanitation by installing hundreds of E-toilets.

Now, what is E-toilet? Well, its an unmanned toilet which cleans itself, one that's based on a sensor-based technology.

Let me explain a little more.  As you see in the photo below, the toilet has a locked door. Now, when you want to use it, you insert a coin to open the door. As the door opens, the toilet's sensor-based light system is automatically turns on - pretty much like the way your ATM teller machine turns on when you swipe your card.
An E-toilet. Courtesy: Eram Scientific

And, just like the ATM machine, the toilet also will direct you with audio commands. This means, you will be directed on how to use the toilet.

To conserve water, the toilets are programmed to flush 1.5 liter of water after three minutes of usage and 4.5 liters if the usage is longer. This “smart” toilet also washes the platform by itself after every five or 10 persons use the toilet. An instructional note is pasted outside the toilet to make the user familiar with the functioning of this toilet. The auto flush goes off on its own and uses just the right amount of water that is needed - not less and not more.

 But why is Shimla adopting e-toilet, instead of building more of the old-style conventional toilets?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Rohingya Refugees: Vulnerable on the sea, not much better on land!

You probably have been reading about them these past few days or watching them on TV - the Rohingya refugees of Myanmar who were chased out of their homeland and now floating around the ocean on boats with no food, no water and nowhere to go. Hundreds of them have already died already while death stares at hundreds of others.

Truth is, hunger and misery are also constant companions of even those Rohingyas who live on the land. I met some of them in Hyderabad city of India. Sharing here some of the images that, several months later, still haunt me!


The Rohingya refugees arrived in India from Bangladesh. For some, it has been a few weeks, while some have been here since 2012. Each one of them has a horrific story to share: beaten, tortured, forced to leave home, watching their near ones being murdered and their homes being burned down.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Toilets: teaching is better than talking!

Sometime in April, I met Roopa, an extraordinary young woman, in a village called Nagenhalli in south-west India. She was smart, friendly, warm and very pretty. But what made me call her extraordinary is this: the woman had built a toilet, all by herself.

Roopa's toilet
Now, before I tell you how she built the toilet, let me share the 'why':

Roopa is a Dalit and her mother is a former temple sex slave. All the men from her village wanted Roopa to also become a sex slave and, as she reached puberty, they began to look at her with lust. So, one day Roopa's mother ran away to another village miles away from her  own, taking along her 6 children.

But in their new village, women and girls were often sexually harassed and assaulted by men from
'higher castes'. Most of these assaults took place when girls and women went to relieve themselves in the open.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Death by coal: our women deserve better

A few weeks ago, I met Minjamma, a woman in her 50s, in Kariganur neighborhood of Hospet town in southern India's Karnataka. And it was a terrible experience.

It was late afternoon and Minjamma was getting ready to cook dinner. She brought out an iron cookstove, placed that in the lane next to her home and lit it. 


Within minutes, a big column of thick, brown, foul-smelling smoke rose and engulfed the whole lane.  My eyes, nose and throat began to burn and water and I found myself nauseated and struggling to breathe. Before I could black out, I ran - to the end of the lane, about 500 meters from Minjamma's house. But from there,  I could still see her bent over the stove, poking it and coughing loudly.

I was wondering when it would the smoke clear up, so I could return to Minjamma's home. However, soon  women from every house in the neighborhood began to light their stoves. The smoke grew thicker, uglier and the air became so smelly, I clutched my chest trying hard to breathe and hoping I wouldn't just drop dead.

 A few teenage girls came out of their homes and sat beside me, asking if I was ok and offered me water.  Once I was able to breathe easy, my first question was what was this horrible thing burning in every cookstove. The answer came as a shock: they were burning coal. 
Real coal.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Clean India: There's No Glory in Being Stupid!

Last week I was in north Karnataka. One of the biggest attractions there is the dam over river Tungabhadra which provides water to several districts of north Karnataka and neighboring Andhra Pradesh.  I was told that this is a must-see and they were right: the dam was truly beautiful.

          
But every time I crossed over one of the branch canals of the dam, I saw it littered with trash. So, there were people bathing, washing and drawing water from the canals for their other needs while also throwing their trash in!  How disgusting!

I returned from the trip yesterday and saw the trash collector with her van. The woman -  employed by the  municipality - comes 3 times in a week and collects the trash. We have to pay her 50 rupees which is actually less than what a packet of cigarettes (about 90 rupees) or, a large bottle of Coke costs (80 rupees).

But every time the woman comes, she collects trash from only a few families in our lane. The reason? Others are not ready to pay her 50 rupees for trash disposal. And these are educated people from fairly well to do families!

So, how do they dispose their trash? Well, they go out in the evening with a bundle of trash ( a plastic bag) and throw it by the roadside. Sometimes, the trash collectors stop by and pick them up, sometimes they just rot there. Often, dogs tear them often, if they smell meat or fish.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When Thirst Beats Education

A few weeks back, I was in a village along the border of Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where I met Sandhya Rani, a 10 year old. She was carrying a bamboo staff on her shoulder and , fastened to its ends, three aluminum vessels. In these vessels, she was going to carry water from a borewell for her family, along with her 7 year old sister Saundrya.

Their parents were working as migrant laborers in a city and the girls lived with their elderly grandmother.



I followed Rani from her house which was at the village' entrance to the borewell at the far end of the village. That was the only borwell in the village - the source of potable water for over 500 people.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Girls' Education: Lets Look Beyond Enrollment

I recently met Bharti, a bubbly 13 year old, at a children's shelter 110 km away from Hyderabad. She had been rescued a few of months ago, the staff at the shelter told me.

"Rescued from who and what? Traffickers? Abusive employers?" I wanted to know
The answer was, "from her own parents".


No, Bharti's parents were not abusive or trying to sell their daughter to someone. It's just that they often stopped her from going to school and took her to work in a farm instead.

Now this sounds quite trivial, doesn't it? After all, the parents are just making the girl miss a few days' school now and then, right?

Not quite.