DELHI -- The work plan of my stay in India includes a number of trips to different parts of the subcontinent. This, I believe, is necessary if I am to get any kind of a balanced view on the vast country. First of the longer trips was made in early February to Rajasthan, a state in western India. For one week I travelled in different parts of the state with Rita Nahata, my mother who was visiting the country briefly and Johanna Sarjas, a Finnish journalist-cum-activist with whom most of our readers are probably already familiar.
The itinerary in Rajasthan was as follows:
2.2. Delhi-Jaipur (330 km)
3.2. Jaipur-Jodhpur (300 km)
6.2. Jodhpur-Barmer-Bijrar (280 km)
7.2. Bijrar-Barmer-Jaisalmer (180 km)
8.2. (Jaisalmer)-Jodhpur (290 km)
9.2. (Jodhpur)-Delhi (540 km)
This Letter concentrates on the experiences from that trip. The first article deals with the human rights situation in Rajasthan and the second gives a short overview of the climatic conditions in the Thar desert. In highlights I write about meeting with Rita's parents and seeing the work of an organisations called SURE. Finally I share my reflections on visiting a remote village near Barmer.
Human rights situation in Rahasthan
Rajasthan is often considered to be a relatively peaceful state with a good human rights record and gender equality. Kavita Srivastava, the general secretary of the Rajasthan chapter of People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), disagrees with this view. According to her, Rajasthan is very much crime-prone and tops the list on atrocities against scheduled castes. Especially crimes against women are very common. Between 1990 and 1996, rape incidents increased by 56% and molestation cases by 83% respectively. Bearing in mind that many cases go unreported due to the social stigma attached to rape, the real numbers are likely to be significantly higher. Even the incidents that are reported may not go anywhere as the victim is pressurised to withdraw the case or the police dismisses it as insignificant. Officials claim that as much as a quarter of rape cases in Rajasthan are baseless.
Kavita attributes the plight of women both to social and cultural traditions and the recent rise in the saffron - or Hindu chauvinist - rule. In the past, men belonging to upper castes and classes could get away with abusing women at lower levels of the social ladder. Even today male groups can gang-rape women and continue abusing them indefinitely through blackmailing the victim with photographs. Saffron rule advocated by the local leaders of the Hindu populist right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) portrays women only as mothers and sisters. If a woman is raped, either the case may be silenced to death or the victim is ostracised as a prostitute or a nymphomaniac that deserves to be hanged. Offenders, often men of high social and political standing, are protected and the victim suddenly becomes the accused.
When we met Kavita in Jaipur, she had her hands full with a recent and telling case which highlights the role of caste and class in human rights abuses. Manoj Kumar Tak and Anuradha Sharma got married in May 1998. What would have otherwise been a happy occasion outraged the father of the bride because Manoj belonged to a tailor caste and had a humble economic background whereas Anuradha was a Brahmin.
Anuradha's father, a lawyer himself, persuaded a dacoit (a criminal) to lodge a false case against Manoj who was subsequently arrested and tortured by the Madhya Pradesh police. To create an atmosphere of terror and to persuade the newly-wed to give up their plans, Manoj's brother Narendra was also arrested and beaten up. So far the appeals and protests by PUCL have fallen on deaf ears as the Brahmin father has, in the words of Kavita, "the police in his pocket".
Although being occupied with the struggle for civil liberties, Kavita somehow manages to have time to campaign also for the right to information, against rape and on anti-nuclear issues. There are not many people sharing the burden and those who are do not get paid, but the work continues thanks to the contributions of generous individuals.
Changes in local climate: arid regions in the West
The hot arid zone in India covers an area the size of Finland. Most of it is located in the western parts of the country and Thar desert in Rajasthan alone constitutes nearly two thirds. Climate in these areas is quite extreme and variations between consecutive years can be drastic. Temperatures may reach almost 50°C in the summer while during winter they can be close to freezing. Rainfall varies from more than 600 mm to less than 150 mm per year. Droughts are frequent phenomena: western Rajasthan has experienced some kind of drought on an average every second year.
According to some studies, rainfall has increased and temperatures have decreased slightly during the 20th century in the north-western parts of the country. One reason might be the extending scope of irrigation: irrigated areas have shown a more marked change compared with non-irrigated regions. The most notable irrigation project in the area has been the building of Indira Gandhi Canal in 1961. Dust storms, previously prevalent in the Jodhpur area, have all but disappeared - perhaps partly due to soil conservation measures.
Extreme weather conditions and frequent droughts make arid zones highly vulnerable to desertification. Growing numbers of both people and animals are adding to the pressure: population in Jodhpur district has grown more than 400% during 190191 and the number of livestock has increased by almost 130% in a little more than four decades. Dr. A.S. Rao from the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) in Jodhpur suggests that growing populations are to blame for desertification as the climate has at the same time actually become less extreme.
Highlights from the fortnight
MEETING RITA'S PARENTS
Like I expected on the basis of what I had heard, Rita's father Amrit Nahata - a three-time member of the parliament - is an intelligent and very experienced gentleman who participated in the Indian freedom struggle as a youth and has been involved in social issues ever since. He was worried about the derooting of the youth in India and the spread of western monocultures and consumerism. Despite vast and ever-growing problems, he had retained a healthy sense of optimism: although things were likely to get worse before getting better, the good would eventually prevail.
Gandhiji's thoughts are now as relevant as or even more relevant than they were some 50 years ago. Coupled with modern information technology - he himself used e-mail even at a honourable age of 74 - they would be able to pave the way for decentralised economies and truly sustainable development.
However, what I found personally even more impressive than Amrit Nahata's thinking was the lifestyle of Rita's mother Raj Nahata, a practising Jain, who holds deep respect for all life. She did not eat the Finnish rye bread we offered her because she was afraid it might contain eggs a truly relevant concern also for many Finnish vegans who have to master the list of additives that contain animal products. Earlier she had grown eggplants that were invariably eaten away by monkeys. When asked whether this made any sense, she just replied that also the monkeys have to be fed. Organic waste was left on a small stone table outside the gate to the house so that cows and other animals could easily eat it. She would not allow cutting old trees even if they did not produce anything. Despite the family being relatively well-off, the Nahatas used very little electricity and water.
I believe that these two combined - the political and economic views of Rita's father ("Gandhi with satellite") and the practical frugal and life-respecting lifestyle of her mother - would be the key elements in any future survival strategy both in the North and, although I am not the right person to judge this, in the South
After getting clearance from the relevant authorities, we visited the area close to the Pakistani border in western Rajasthan where Society to Uplift Rural Economy (SURE) was working. With the assistance of foreign donors SURE had formed women's groups or Mahila Mandals in which the women were taught traditional craft skills. One woman would take the task of overseeing the work and the others would make products ranging from bags to pillow cases and bed covers. SURE had acquired professional help in designing products that used traditional techniques but were still appealing to the modern consumers.
The bottleneck seemed to be marketing and distribution of the products which started a heated debate. A young gentleman from SURE defended the policy of providing sufficient income to the villagers and protecting them from the exploitation of middlemen. Rita argued that his ideals reeked of socialism and were not suited to current market economy. She advocated that SURE should act only as an initiator, find suitable commercial partners for the villagers and get out of the project as soon as possible. In her opinion there was no exploitation if both the buyer and seller agreed on a suitable price.
The most profound and moving experience so far during my month-long stay in India has been visiting a small village called Navtala in a remote corner of the Thar desert. Materially the people lived in humble conditions, but we were greeted with genuine smiles and friendly curiosity. This was in stark contrast to the predatory attitudes of many three-wheeler drivers and hawkers we had encountered and would encounter later in cities and tourist-infested areas like Jaisalmer. (To avoid misunderstanding I must add that I quite understand the behaviour of these people who are just trying to make a living.)
Johanna - remarkably better than I at talking, socialising and expressing her views in a foreign language - put the experience quite beautifully (presented here in a paraphrased form): we in the North may have high material standards of living, but these villagers had a sense of community; we have a lot of plastic, but when the villagers look at the sky in the night, they can see the stars.
The trip provided many other memorable moments: sitting at the back of a pickup fast making its way through the beautiful landscapes of the Thar desert or staying overnight in a hut made of cow dung and straws. Although I have had my fair share of reading, talking and watching documentaries about India, experiencing the country firsthand is always totally different. That is why I consider travelling to be of utmost importance.