Purnima Sah
Purnima Sah
Purnima Sah is a multimedia journalist with over seven years of experience. Before becoming a full-time freelance journalist in 2020, she was with Times of India and Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd. She is passionate about women's issues, human rights, gender, environment and rural India.
Stories by Purnima Sah
 07 Jul, 2023

Assam’s Margherita seeks a just transition from coal

Agriculture and forest produce have the potential to provide alternative employment to former contract workers, but the state government should work in tandem with policymakers and organisations to bring out a livelihood action plan Margherita, Assam: Clutching her dreams, G Swaramma (60) moved to Assam’s Margherita as a young bride around 45 years ago. An Andhra Pradesh native, she now regrets her marriage to a worker in Namdang colliery. She had to work at home and outside. Her husband would often fall sick working underground and she would then go in his stead. Compounding her woes, her husband died within a decade of marriage, leaving her with two children to raise.“Work in the mine causes extreme health hazards that one cannot recover from. There is no life here. My son lost his contract work after Borgolai colliery stopped operations. Since then, I have been taking up multiple jobs. In the mornings, my daughter and I collect and sell coal pieces to agents. In the evenings, I sell fish that I catch from small ponds here,” said Swaramma. The permanent workers in the North Eastern Coalfields (NEC), a Coal India Limited (CIL) venture, were transferred to other locations or posted in various positions in Margherita itself when the mine closed, but the workers on contract had nowhere to go. They were not given enough time to move out or prepare for their future. Swaramma's family broke into the accommodation provided by the CIL four times after they were locked out for not vacating. “We were left to suffer without any alternative employment. When the colliery shut, we were sent out of our home,” said Swaramma, wondering why an industry other than coal cannot be established in Margherita. The effect of colliery closure is evident on the business establishments in Ledo Bazaar Colony, known as Kumartuli (idol makers’ colony). Most of the idols displayed in stores here are cancelled orders from over five years. Sudhir Pal (74) recalled the days when his father and grandfather used to travel from West Bengal to sculpt idols during Durga Puja, Kali Puja and Vishwakarma Puja. Later, they settled down in Margherita.In the foothills of Patkai hills, in Ledo market, a group of 10 weavers weaving baskets (Photo - Purnima Sah, 101Reporters)“We used to have customers from Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Margherita, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh such as Kharsang, Hasseng and Kongsa. Never in our dreams did we imagine a life without the coal industry here,” said Sudhir, the eldest of six brothers.  “When coal mines were in full swing, we were not sitting idle like this. At present, the future looks bleak,” said Narayan Pal (64), one of the Pal brothers who came up with the idea of crafting clay models, decorative items, and sculptures of popular personalities such as Bhupen Hazarika, which would be of interest to hotels, NEC office, Coal Heritage Park and Museum in Margherita and other parks in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh.“Orders are not regular. We want to learn to sell online.” he added. There are times when Pal brothers thought of shutting down their pottery unit. They unsuccessfully tried a grocery store a year ago. None of their children is interested in the traditional occupation. Most of them, including those who did mining courses, are jobless.The sculptors are upgrading their skills to find scope of income in the market (Photo - Purnima Sah, 101Reporters)Mantosh Taye, Engineer Assistant (Civil), NEC Margherita, and general secretary of Assam Coal Mines Mazdoor Union (affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress), told 101Reporters that the NEC has been neglected for years. “The company is in dire need of help from the government and CIL. Both Tirap and Tikak mines have east and west phases. Only Tikak East with a production 0.20 Million Tonne Per Annum (MTPA) is open now. How can an industry survive with such production,” asked Taye. He recounted how residents suffered when the plywood industry in Margherita crashed in 1996. “Back then, at least coal mines were present as another industry for people to fall back on. But if coal mines are shut forever, we all fear Margherita’s name will be erased from history,” he added.No proper closureThe way projects were wound up has been a matter of worry for coal mine staff as well. Tirap colliery is non-functional for the last three years, but its senior manager BB Sahu is loaded with work. At 7 am every day, he and his team would take note of the tasks at hand — fixing electrical problems, water leakage, water connection to the colonies in the hillocks where former contract workers still live, pumping out mine water and road maintenance among others. The survey department regularly watches out for encroachments on colliery land. “The colonies lay scattered on the hillock as they were built in a haphazard manner when the colliery came into existence. They are in a bad shape,” Sahu told 101Reporters, giving an insight into the volume of work.“In the office, we have so many queries to respond to — Right To Information responses, Parliament questions, daily reports on rainfall and temperature, updating details of attendance, manpower and total expenditure, besides law book maintenance. All these have to be done manually,” said Sahu, who spent 16 years in Tirap unit out of his total 31 years of colliery employment.He claimed to have sent many letters to the Union Ministry of Mines, Assam government, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the CIL to find a way to make the mine operational again. “All organisations and government bodies need to understand the complex issue of livelihood loss,” Sahu emphasised.Sanjib Baruah, an NEC mechanical foreman and working president at Rashtriya Coal Mazdoor Union (RCMU) affiliated with the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, told 101Reporters that they were worried about the locals engaged by coal mafias. “Coal mafias have no understanding of the geographical conditions of the hills. They do not care if the place is landslide-prone, they just want coal from anywhere. This is why innocent people die during illegal mining. If mines in Margherita shut down forever, these mafias will grow, and we will see more such deaths,” Baruah cautioned.Multiple emails and calls to the CIL and NEC officials remained unanswered. Needed, a solid action planWhat Margherita needs today is a comprehensive plan for transition from coal mining. Pallav Shyam Wailung, general secretary and spokesperson, Tirap Autonomous District Council Demand Committee, has been proposing various alternative livelihood options ever since the trouble with the coal industry in Assam began. "We have had several meetings with NEC General Manager S P Dutta. He keeps saying that things are not in his hands and that only big organisations and non-profits can take the matter forward. Rice and betel nuts are cultivated in the hills. We are discussing with farmers and former coal workers to introduce vanilla cultivation. Dealing with forest produce, spices and medicinal herbs will not only offer lasting income but also benefit ecosystem," Wailung reasoned. He said these ideas were proposed to the state agriculture and horticulture department. "In the public hearing held on July 6 to obtain environmental clearance for the opencast project in Tirap, I requested the authorities to put an end to unscientific and illegal mining in Margherita," he added. Swapan Rai, the general secretary of the RCMU’s Margherita unit, retired as a senior clerk from the NEC in 2018. His father and forefathers were all employed with the NEC. Rai blamed the government policies that he believed had failed to solve the issues in Margherita’s coal mines. “Nobody is thinking of energy transition here. It will happen only if the government and policymakers work together to bring a solid plan. People here are extremely poor, and coal has been their only earning source. On the other hand, states like Gujarat are flourishing and moving towards solar energy.”So far, the government has not taken any step that could ultimately lead to a just transition. The NEC general manager was not available to comment on the fate of collieries, whether they will die a slow death. Meanwhile, Milan Biswas, another retired NEC senior clerk and RCMU vice president, said a report of the Central Mine Planning and Design Institute Limited suggested that Lekhapani mines have over 60 years of coal reserves. “If not made a part of the reserve forests of Lekhapani range, these mines would have saved the NEC from making losses today. After staging multiple protests at the CIL office in Kolkata, we have only been assured that Tirap will be opened soon. However, we have not received a permanent solution to this crisis yet,” said Biswas.Advocate Mrinmoy Khataniar, who has been fighting an illegal mining case in the Guwahati High Court, told 101Reporters that the government should prepare a solid plan to address the livelihood concerns, in case mines are fully shut. “Perhaps bring tourism for a safe and healthy transition from the dirty energy,” he suggested.Edited by Mayank AggarwalThis report is supported by a grant from Earth Journalism Network’s Pathways to Net Zero project.Cover Photo - G Swaramma, 60 year old (Photo - Purnima Sah, 101Reporters)

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Assam’s Margherita seeks a just transition from coal

 06 Jul, 2023

Margherita’s collieries sink into oblivion, push workers to the brink

With five of the total six collieries shut, contract workers turn to illegal mining industry and other odd jobs to make ends meet  Margherita, Assam: The hustle-bustle that once defined the coal town of Margherita in Assam’s Tinsukia district is missing these days. Lorries transporting coal, and colliery employees taking tea breaks at small shops were common sights here. But with the collieries in North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) shutting down, the ‘Coal Queen’ is on the brink of losing her black diamond.According to the 2016 data on state-wise coal resources, Assam contributes 525 Million Tonne Per Annum (MTPA) out of the country's total 3,08,801.84 MTPA. In Tinsukia district, the NEC used to operate six collieries — Tikak, Tirap, Tipong, Ledo, Borgolai and Namdang. Though Ledo, Borgolai and Tipong stopped production in 2009-10, the latter resumed operations in 2010-2011.However, in 2020, all six were closed due to environmental clearance-related issues and non-availability of land for overburden dump. The NEC managed to reopen only Tikak colliery, which has two opencast projects with a combined capacity of 0.40 MTPA, in March last year. As part of the procedure to obtain environmental clearance from the Union Environment Ministry for reopening Tirap colliery, the state Pollution Control Board will organise a public hearing at Ledo colliery panchayat office on July 6. This opencast coal project has a capacity of 0.60 MTPA. Contractual workers worst hitLabourers on contract suffered the most when collieries shut. Some took to growing tea or vegetables in their backyards, while others became daily wage labourers in the informal and illegal mining industry that continues to date.Since his childhood, Agniprasad Gowala (34) of Mulong Gaon in Margherita subdivision has done all sorts of work. “There are no industries except coal. When one is hungry for days, one does not understand what is legal and illegal, and will do anything to get a meal,” Gowala, whose family moved here from Odisha three generations ago, told 101Reporters.Agniprasad Gowala (34) of Mulong Gaon Village (Photo - Purnima Sah, 101Reporters)His father was a mine worker, but he slipped and fractured his hip while carrying coal on a rainy day. He could not get back to work since then. Gowala was barely five when he, along with his mother and two brothers aged below 12, had to climb the hills to source coal and sell it in eateries and restaurants to make ends meet. Some days they would also collect coal pieces from the banks of River Dihing. “My mother was denied a dependent employee’s job citing spelling mistakes in ration card and voter ID. My brothers and I could not get a job either. So we became contractual labourers in different collieries. We were doing fine, but when coal mines began to shut down, we had no option but to turn to illegal mining,” said Gowala.They have to start before dawn to reach Patkai hills for the arduous task. “We climb up to collect coal and come down to fill our sacks multiple times. By 8 am, we have to be on our bicycles or carry the sacks on our shoulders to sell it to agents for Rs 600 to 700 per kg. I have carried 139 kg in a day when there was no money at all. It is very risky as we do not know the hills much. Some people died in landslides, and some slipped while climbing up with coal-laden sacks,” narrated Gowala, a father of two.Changing circumstancesAn NEC case study by the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur’s Just Transition Research Centre (JTRC) states that a sizeable population dependent on the coal sector find their economic and social security threatened due to mine closures. Of the 172 respondents, 108 said the livelihoods of both coal workers and residents of Margherita have seen drastic changes.As per the study, 52% said their income decreased, while 20% said they lost their jobs. Another 13% faced business recession, while 5% took up odd jobs such as weaving baskets required for coal mining and opening bicycle repair shops. Only 5% of the respondents reported no change in livelihood.   The report also highlights the plight of contractual labourers who went unrecognised by the colliery management. “Their condition worsened to the point that they starved for nights, which also pushed the female family members to prostitution,” explained Suprio Basu of the JTRC.The JTRC report highlighted the need to explore non-coal local enterprises such as bamboo-based handicrafts, computer/automobile/agro input enterprises, brick industry, and agro-produce dealerships.Today, coking coal bhattas (kilns) have become major hubs of illegal coal trade. Basu Sharma (46) from Telkhat village near Borgolai is the production manager in one such kiln located just 500 m from his home. “There is no future in coal. I do not want my two children to enter this industry. With current mining restrictions, the future seems totally dark in Margherita. If the government can think of bringing another industry, it will be a game changer for our people,” said Sharma, whose wife runs a grocery store since the mines shut.(Above) The closed Borgolai coalfields; (Below) Empty houses in Borgolai (Photos - Purnima Sah, 101Reporters)Amrita Tamang (26) had to assume all domestic responsibilities at the age of 17, following her father’s death in a road accident in 2014. At that time, her brother was only three. Till then, they used to live in Borgolai quarters, and their father used to work in Ledo colliery. A year after his death, Tamang’s mother got a job on dependent quota. But it was in faraway Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand.Within two years of her mother shifting to Ranchi, Tamang and her extended family had to vacate the quarters “as the colliery was shutting down”. They then moved in with their aunt in Borgolai and have been living there on rent since then. Tamang and her brother have been struggling to get free medical treatment in the NEC hospital in Margherita. “The medical staff tell us that we can get free treatment and medicines only in Ranchi as our mother works there. We are trying for her transfer back to Margherita, and are hopeful that collieries will restart soon,” said Tamang, who tutors schoolchildren and stitches clothes to earn some money.A ghost town in the makingBorgolai resembles a ghost town with colliery quarters either locked up or in a dilapidated condition. Monika Konwar (50) moved to Ledo in 2000. Her family is the only one living in their colony. Konwar’s husband is a teacher in the colliery school. which was converted into a government school after the mines were closed. According to Konwar, all her neighbours left the village forever. Some retired, some were transferred, some migrated, and some died. “When we came here, the village was so vibrant. Now, walking on empty roads feels so spooky even in the daytime,” said Konwar, who weaves Assamese gamcha and mekhla sador and sells them in Tinsukia market. Her two daughters and a son are pursuing higher education in Guwahati and Margherita, and do not wish to join the colliery.Rubul Bora from Namdang Golai turned 30 in April, but he had nothing to cheer about as his aspirations were all dependent on a job in the NEC. After his father’s death in 2017, Bora wanted to become a mining overseer. He had cleared joint entrance examination in mining engineering in 2015, before doing post-diploma practical training at Tipong colliery the same year. By 2016, he had cleared all the exams. “In August 2017, I saw an NEC advertisement about an opening for Overman and Deputy Surveyor (Mines). I was very hopeful, but they withdrew it without any intimation. I along with 20 others wrote to the state government multiple times, but nothing happened. We recently learnt that the job was cancelled,” said Bora, who went to Nagpur, Pune, Odisha and Ranchi looking for employment but was only offered the work of a mine labourer.“I do not deserve that job because I put a lot of work into studies. I left these places after six months of contractual labour.” Bora now works as a chef in Margherita. “If Tipong or another colliery reopens, I will definitely give it a try,” said Bora, not giving up on his dream job. Edited by Mayank AggarwalThis report is supported by a grant from Earth Journalism Network’s Pathways to Net Zero project.  Cover Photo - Shanti Chadalawada walks 14kms daily from Pata Line Village to collect coal (Photo - Purnima Sah, 101Reporters)

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Margherita’s collieries sink into oblivion, push workers to the brink

 29 Mar, 2023

Photo Essay: Amidst harsh life, workers in India's oldest coalfields unprepared for transition

In one of India's oldest coalfields, there is suffering and general discontent, irrespective of whether the mines are operational or notThe roads in Topsi are black with coal dust and a few men can be seen dragging their bicycles loaded with sacks of coal. As we enter this village in the Jamuria sub-division of Paschim Bardhaman district in West Bengal, we see children playing outside the huts and their mothers mixing coal dust and cow dung to make cooking fuel. There is barely any vegetation in sight. Even the village pond is covered in coal dust, though Topsi Coal Mine has been dysfunctional for the last five years. Welcome to the country’s first and oldest coal mining region, a part of Raniganj Coalfield that has been producing coal for nearly two centuries.Daily wage labourer Chandana Bauri (right) could easily find work when the coal mine was functional. “We had multiple jobs. We can be domestic helps in company quarters or offices, or work in the cooking and cleaning sections of hotels and restaurants,” says Chandana, who is in her 50s.In her 60s, Rekha Bauri works in a brick kiln. For many years, she was a contractual worker under the labour officer of Girijapara coal washery. “I used to wash and load coal in trucks and clean up the area but was paid erratically for my hard work. I was not paid at all for the last year of my work. In the last few days before the washery shutdown, the labour officer assured me of payment, but he just vanished. I feel angry and exploited.” Researchers from the Just Transition Research Centre, IIT-Kanpur said women are easily exploited in these coal regions as they are not counted in the workforce and there is no union raising their concerns since everything is led by men.Debashish Ruidas says the management shifted a few workers to another mine, but most of the villagers were left jobless. "Some took up menial jobs, while some are still searching for work. Helpless families even collect coal pieces from the closed mines to sell in the market.”This is the house of Srijan Ruidas. After over two decades of contractual labour, he lost his job at Bedbad colliery four months ago. His son Vishal Ruidas (19) says, “He was earning only Rs 120 a day, but he would still go every day and do the work, wherever he got it. Yet, his contractor fired him saying he was not punctual. It was very strange!" Srijan now earns Rs 250 per day as a construction labourer. Sometimes Vishal skips school, where he is now in the final year, to work in a cable factory. “I do not wish to end up in a colliery. I want to study and get a job.”Around 3 km from Topsi is Kunustoria Colliery, one of the 14 operational areas of Eastern Coalfields Limited (ECL) in Asansol sub-division of Paschim Bardhaman district. The infrastructure here is better — pucca roads, quarters for coal workers, a trade union office manned by the Koyla Khadan Shramik Congress and even a mini stadium named Pargati Stadium. However, people say not all is well.Mohammed Imtiyaz Khan works as a safety supervisor and production assistant. His responsibility is to take workers to the mine site and bring them back safely to the village. Kunustoria Colliery still relies on old methods — blasting the coal bed and manually transferring coal into trucks using carts. “It is a risky job as workers have to go at least 125 m underground. We work here only because it is a government job with good pay.”  When Khan joined in 2002, the colliery had around 2,500 full-time workers. Now, there are only 800. For permanent workers, the pay ranges from Rs 15,000 to Rs 60,000 per month depending on the designation and experience. “Swollen lungs are quite common among underground mine workers. Unfortunately, medical facilities and health checkups are inadequate. We need first-aid kits, reflective jackets and dust-protection masks, besides other safety equipment,” Mohammed Imtiyaz Khan says. On paper, this settlement has a big water filter plant to supply drinking water to around two lakh people. In reality, people travel 4 km to fetch water from a public tap, says security guard Mohammad Mumtaz. “There is no tap connection here. The well remains covered in coal dust.”Mohammad Kamal Ahmed’s father moved to Kunustoria from Uttar Pradesh in 1967 to work as a coal loader. When he retired in 2000, Ahmed sold 1.5 acres of land to the coal company and in exchange got a permanent job in the tender department. His home in the company quarters is in shambles. “Every house given by the ECL is of poor quality. The walls, ceiling and roof make me feel like they will collapse anytime. There are cracks and leaks. The doors and windows are broken. We have fixed them temporarily by spending our money as the company does not respond to our complaints.”Chotelal Rajbhar and Jaiprakash Gupta have been working in underground mines for over three decades. Their fathers and grandfathers did the same work. But Rajbhar’s son works in a Bengaluru-based MNC after completing his MBA, while Gupta’s son is preparing for GMAT and one of his daughters is pursuing General Nursing and Midwifery. “This government job pays well but working in coal mines, whether underground or not, involves risk factors,” says Gupta. His colleague Sheikh Amir Ullah agrees. “The major issue in working underground is that oxygen levels there are very low and often drop to 70% of normal. On top of that, we cover our noses tightly with gamchas (cloth towels) to avoid inhaling coal dust. And when we come out, we eat a cube of jaggery to release toxic dust and dirt from our bodies.”Kishore Nonia is 55 and partially paralysed. He inherited his mine job and did all kinds of work for over three decades — dragging a tram to transport coal to roasting furnaces or bins, pushing carts, drilling in underground mines, cutting up large chunks of coal and loading them into trucks. He did not realise when exactly his health started deteriorating. “Initially, it was just high blood pressure, fever, cold and breathing difficulties. I was administered some medications at a nearby hospital, after which my body began to tremble. Suddenly I was not able to move my right side. I was bedridden for a year,” recalls Nonia, who believes he was misdiagnosed. When he was ill, his wife took up temporary work involving coal loading and unloading in the surface mine. “The company did not fire me but shifted me to the surface mine. Now I sprinkle water to settle coal dust, work in the garden, and maintain a log of coal-loaded trucks.”All photos by Purnima Sah, 101ReportersThe story was produced as part of the Net Zero and Just Energy Transition workshop organised by the Earth Journalism Network

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Photo Essay: Amidst harsh life, workers in India's oldest coalfields unprepared for transition

 13 Feb, 2023

Small yet sustained events a matter of pride for LGBTQIA+ in rural West Bengal

A series of pride events held in the North Bengal region encourages the community to shed fear of society and fight for rights, while also bringing about a change in people’s mindset towards themCooch Behar, West Bengal: At a time when the country is warming up to the idea of queers having a life and even becoming biological parents, can small towns be left behind? Definitely not, shows the pride event organised recently in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar.Aptly titled 'An evening with pride — love is love and we are we: free and equal’, the January 21 event was a first-time experience for most of the nearly 80 participants who came from villages located in Cooch Behar, Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar and Kurseong in the state’s northern region. “Of course, we have come a long way. Being able to organise this event is in itself proof. A decade ago, terms such as LGBTQIA+ or transgender did not exist in rural areas. Today, we are talking about who is what, and the difference between a hijra and a trans person,” said transgender rights activist Sumi Das (35), also the founder of the NGO Moitrisanjog Society formed in Cooch Behar district in 2019.A pride event in Cooch Behar was organised in January this year by PRISMATIC &+ in collaboration with Moitrisanjog“People in society are yet to understand the existence of LGBTQIA+. Most members of our community remain hidden as they do not feel accepted. This is why we only conducted a pride event and not a pride parade,” said Sumi, who worked together with PRISMATIC &+ founder Grace (24) to put the event together.The confidence to speak outIt was a dream come true for Subha Das (18), who always followed pride parades of metro cities through social media and dreamt of making them one day. “Such events give us the confidence to speak what we feel. After meeting several people during the event, I feel for the first time that I am not alone in this journey anymore. We need to come together as a community, only then can we support each other,” said the transwoman from Ghughumari village. Subha dropped out of school after Class 10 due to bullying and sexual harassment, and makes leaf plates and dining table cover in a manufacturing unit set up by Moitrisanjog.  “Just because someone is from the community does not mean we need to dress up, dance at weddings, beg on streets or end up in flesh trade. People in rural areas need to come out of this notion and realise that there are respectable ways to earn a livelihood,” voiced Raja Dutta (25), an Odissi dancer from Birpara in Alipurduar.(Above) Sumi Das is a transgender rights activist and founder of the NGO Moitrisanjog Society. The event encouraged the expression of people's identities to spread awareness about the legal rights of the LGBTQIA+ community“Most of us are not aware of our rights. If I am facing violence, I need not sit at home crying and should instead seek help. Through this programme, I shared my own story to tell the community that they should not fear approaching a police station,” said Dutta, who stood up for herself in an abusive relationship, and took legal action against the other person.The transperson also shared the need for gender-neutral public spaces, citing the case of a friend whose hospital admission following a suicide attempt was delayed because hospital staff could not figure out where to admit the patient. “Finally, when we intervened and sought admission in the male ward, they took it in writing that they would not be responsible for the patient’s safety. That was appalling,” said Dutta, whose efforts made alma mater Vivekananda College in Alipurduar district set up a gender-neutral toilet last year. “Milestones like these make us believe that there is a hope for change in society,” said Dutta, who performed Ardhanarishwara Odissi dance at the event.The right to chooseEducating people in the community about livelihood options and choices was a key part of the event. A discussion was held on conducting sensitisation programmes with police, healthcare workers, media and public, in general, to create awareness and curb crimes against the community. The need for a system to offer immediate help to victims of violence and injustice was highlighted.The manager of Hotel Jyotsna, where this event was organised, acknowledged that they have never heard about LGBTQIA+ and that it feels "good to be a part of a social change"“Our aim is to first educate people about our legal rights. Through discussions, we need to gather confidence to be able to express ourselves and come out,” said Sumi. When the event was announced on social media, many messaged the organisers but wanted to keep their identity private in view of safety concerns.“We have never hosted an event like this before… We all grew up here, but it is rather strange that we have never seen or heard about LGBTQIA+… It does feel good to be a part of social change,” said Prakash Barman, the manager at Hotel Jyotsna.  PRISMATIC &+, a queer and ally-based organisation formed in June 2022, has so far conducted pride parades and events in different parts of Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong, Sikkim and Gangtok. A practising advocate in the Calcutta High Court, Grace (preferred name and is non-binary) said the NGO was established to provide free-of-cost legal aid to the community. It has so far handled four criminal cases from North Bengal. “When we conducted events in the hills, we got both bouquets and brickbats. In some places, authorities were not aware of LGBTQIA+ or pride events. We faced many homophobic and transphobic slurs... We need to conduct more such programmes in villages, where many have to hide their identities,” said Grace. In fact, during the event, there were discussions on support-building groups to reach out to the rural populace.B.Ed student Paulami (22) from Cooch Behar district attended the event with her friend, an ally. “Rural events will pave the way for changes at the grassroots level as that is where the majority of our country’s population lives,” said the lesbian community member. At home, her mother is the only person who understands and supports her. “Since there is not much awareness about our existence, crime incidents often happen with most of us. If events are regularly organised, especially in schools and colleges, I am hopeful that bullying and harassment will slowly come down and people will become inclusive.”“I also feel we need to bring every person in the society on board, including the teachers who need to learn to be empathetic,” said Paulami, who has never been to a pride event before.  “It is commendable to see people living in rural areas making an effort to attend. If people from our hometown start recognising our existence, then that itself is a big win for us,” Raja Dutta said.All photos are sourced from Moitrisanjog Society and PRISMATIC &+Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

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Small yet sustained events a matter of pride for LGBTQIA+ in rural West Bengal

 11 Jan, 2023

A house of cards: West Bengal scheme for tea workers gives a roof over heads but not land rights

As construction of houses for permanent workers under Chaa Sundari Scheme progresses, there is all-round ambiguity on what kind of legal ownership the beneficiaries will get, if at all anyAlipurduar & Jalpaiguri, West Bengal: Ashik Munda’s family realised the importance of owning land when his 11-year-old nephew was diagnosed with blood cancer in 2018. “We moved him from Siliguri government hospital to a private one in Kolkata. But before we could arrange money, he left us,” lamented Munda, a resident of Dima Tea Estate in Alipurduar district of West Bengal.Munda runs a petty shop, while other family members work in the tea plantation. “If we had land, we could have sold a portion for his timely treatment, and maybe the boy would have been 15 today,” he continued.Majority of the tea workers are tribals who migrated to West Bengal before Independence. They include Khariyas from Odisha; Munda, Oraon/Kurukh and Sadan from Chota Nagpur; Gadiya Lohars from Rajasthan; Tirkey from Jharkhand; Mahali from Bihar; Dorji/Dorjee from Tibet; Pradhan, Lama and Chhetri from Nepal.In a measure seemingly beneficial to them, the 2020 State Budget introduced the Chaa Sundari Scheme to fund house construction for all permanent tea garden workers. The houses they currently live in are also not theirs as the tea garden managements had provided those generations ago. Nevertheless, the workers have been demanding land rights for the same.The consistant demands of tea plantation workers have been land rights and minimum wage (Photo sourced by Purnima Sah) According to the Budget announcement, the State has three lakh permanent workers on rolls of 370 tea gardens. Almost 50% of the workers are women and a majority belongs to Scheduled Tribes. The fund allocations in the three Budgets starting FY 2020-21 till FY 2022-23 for the first phase of the project were Rs 0.55 crore, 39.60 crore and 49 crore, respectively. A total allocation of Rs 500 crore was announced for the scheme.    The housing department will implement the scheme, for which the district magistrates will identify and prepare a list of permanent tea garden workers, which the labour department will authenticate. The beneficiaries will have the right to dwell, observing the terms and conditions as laid down in the allotment letters.Each dwelling unit (house) in an area of 394 sq ft will cost ₹5.43 lakh. The first phase target is 4,022 units (2,969 in Alipurduar and 1,053 in Jalpaiguri districts), of which 1,171 are in various stages of completion in Dheklapara, Mujnai, Torsa and Manabari tea gardens. Other line departments will make provisions for drinking water, power, internal roads and markets in the dwellings.The fine lineSabita Jha (69), a temporary tea worker from Atiabari tea garden in Kalchini, absolutely nailed the ambiguity when she said, “The government notification clearly says Chaa Sundari homes are only for permanent workers. There is no mention of legal ownership. What will happen to our current homes? Where will the rest of our family, who are not permanent workers, live?”(Above) Homes of tea workers in Naxalbari; (Below) Amrita Ekka, a tea worker from Belgachi tea estates in Naxalbari, doesnt want to move to a Chaa Sundari house because she worries there wouldn't be adequate space (Photos - Purnima Sah/101Reporters)The management/tea company holding the garden’s lease recruits permanent workers who are entitled to basic facilities, including healthcare, schools for children, proper working conditions, houses, provident fund, gratuity, etc., as per the Plantations Labour Act, 1951.Temporary workers get regular labour only during tea-plucking season, but are paid Rs 232 per day like permanent workers. Bigha workers, on the other hand, are daily wage workers with no guarantee of labour. Both temporary and bigha workers are not entitled to other benefits. There used to be at least one permanent worker in a family of seven or eight, but now they have only two or three temporary ones as the last permanent worker recruitment happened in 1999.The condition in closed/sick tea gardens where Phase-I of the project is implemented is worse as there is no work in the gardens and the availability of work outside the estates is negligible as the location is away from towns.Forget work, even the houses they presently live in can be taken away from them. “In two years, my father will retire and if I do not take up his job in Nagaisuree Tea Garden, we will have to vacate our house where four generations have lived. The retirement letter clearly states this,” Christian Khariya, the first in his family to get a college education, told 101Reporters.  “Pushing generations to stay in a certain labour, thereby keeping them poor and uneducated, is no less than bonded labour," reasoned Khariya, the president of Uttar Bangal Chai Shramik Sanghthan, which has organised Navjagran Yatras seeking land rights in the last two years.Sabita Jha’s son Rahul Kumar Jha is against the intergenerational cycle of labour. “When tea workers enquired about land ownership in Duare Sarkar camps, the official present told the land was never ours and can never be ours,” said Rahul, who along with Ashik Munda walked for 65 days from Dima Tea Garden to New Delhi in 2018 to make their demands heard. Munda felt Chaa Sundari homes would not solve the real issues. “In our present homes, we grow vegetables, and rear cattle and poultry in the open space. How can a tea worker’s wages alone raise a family of eight,” he asked.Tribal ethos & sustenance issueAccording to Khariya, Chaa Sundari houses are not designed keeping the tribal lifestyle in mind. They do not have a porch or backyard, which restricts prakriti pooja (nature worship), karam pooja (harvest festival), gaon pooja (village worship) and sarhul (spring festival). “Even our weddings happen in open space,” he said.In association with Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), architect Debasmita Ghosh launched a survey last May to analyse how mindfully Chaa Sundari homes were constructed. “The layout is small, and there is hardly any space between houses. The kitchen design favours use of LPG stove, which the community cannot afford. Attached bathrooms are also against their cultural practices," she attested.(Above) Locally grown greens in the kitchen garden of a tea worker. The families here depend on produce like squash and mushrooms to complement their diet (Photo - Purnima Sah/101Reporters); (Below) Tea plantation workers in Birpara tea garden rear cattle for self consumption and added income (Photo sourced by Purnima Sah/101Reporters)“One can imagine how impoverished they already are, and if they are moved to Chaa Sundari homes, their situation will get worse. This is a sustenance issue,” highlighted Ghosh.Though PBKMS coordinator Tapojay Mukherjee filed a Right to Information application last May seeking clarity on the scheme, nothing concrete came forth. “We wanted to know what will happen to their present dwellings, and whether workers will get land rights.” The legal tangle“The question of land ownership in tea plantations is fairly complex as nobody has ownership documents. As the land is on lease from the government, the rights that people have are limited,” Tripti Poddar, a Delhi-based advocate who has worked with NGOs in Bengal, told 101Reporters.“There is no clarity over land ownership even within the policy circles as only house allotment letters are given now. My understanding is that there will be restrictions on how workers use these houses and whether they can be sold or not,” Poddar continued. Incidentally, no beneficiary has received the house keys under the scheme so far.Women tea workers in Naxalbari. Women make up nearly 50 percent of all tea workers (Photo - Purnima Sah)It is a very grey area of law, but the Secretary of West Bengal Housing Board (who refused to be named) said, “The land belongs to the State government, and the question of land rights does not even arise.” Asked about the protests seeking land ownership, he claimed the government was not messing up with people’s rights in any way.  Cover Photo: Chaa Sunsari houses almost ready for occupancy in Dheklapara Tea Garden, Alipurduar district, West Bengal (Photo - Purnima Sah) Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

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A house of cards: West Bengal scheme for tea workers gives a roof over heads but not land rights

 24 Sep, 2022

Photo Essay: The Pardhi struggle for Jal-Jameen

“The borewell dries up every summer, and the sarpanch does not care. Also, there is no sign of the permanent houses we were promised two years ago,” says Sushila Sanjay Kare.Sushila lives in a settlement located on a remote patch in Dhakephal, about 180 km from Kaij in Beed district of Maharashtra. She belongs to the Pardhi tribe, considered an outcast by the dominant Marathas.As per the 2011 Census, Pardhi population in Beed district stands at 5,556, while it is 2,23,527 in the whole of Maharashtra. According to Bhavna Menon, programme manager, Last Wilderness Foundation, the tribe worked for the ruling kings and the British, before taking to hunting. “In 1871, the British outlawed them under the Criminal Tribes Act, along with 150 other communities, and stamped them as hereditary criminals. Although this Act was repealed in 1952 to bring Pardhis under the classification of nomadic denotified tribes, the stigma still continues,” explains Menon.Sushila Sanjay Kare Anjana Chagan Kare felt lucky when she spotted a heap of chana dal dropped on roadside. She brought it home to make puranpoli (a sweet lentil filled chapati) for her family of eight. The marginalised tribe she belongs to always battles with food insecurity. On favourable days, she gets some leftover curry along with stale rotis. On the worst of days, she chews on leaves!Every time Anandgaon village, 60 km from Kaij, witnesses a wedding, 200-member-strong Pardhi settlement on the fringes turn both hopeful and distressed.“We wait until the wedding is over. Before stray dogs could claim their share, we pounce on the dustbins hoping to grab some leftovers,” says Sunita Govind Kare, portraying the sense of deprivation that chokes the members of the nomadic tribe, considered to be the descendants of Maharana Pratap.Anjana Chagan KareThe empty kitchen of a Pardhi household shows the grim reality of their food securityJaibai Motiram Kare12 years ago, Rajjubai Vilas Kare lived through the worst days of her life when her husband Vilas Motiram Kare lost a leg and his ability to speak in a road accident. Panicked, Rajjubai rushed to Kaij government hospital, where the medical staff made her wait in the compound.“When he lost consciousness due to pain and bleeding, I screamed for help. Only then did a medical practitioner attend to him. The doctor just bandaged the bleeding leg, handed over some pills and instructed me to take him home.”Rajjubai had to drag a subconscious Vilas all the way home, as walking was the only mode of transport available for her.Rajjubai Vilas Kare along with her husband Vilas Motiram KareOnce, when traditional remedies failed, Gita Dhananjay Shidey walked seven km to the nearest primary health centre (PHC) carrying her child suffering from severe fever. She waited for hours outside the gate, only to be met with sheer disgust. The healthcare workers refused to touch the patient, calling both “a walking disease”. “The doctor did not examine my child, but threw a medicine strip at me from a distance,” she adds.Pardhis neither receive immunisations nor are visited by ASHA workers.Gita Dhananjay ShideyPardhis are hired neither for harvesting sugarcane—a major crop in the region—nor for menial tasks. They grow soybean for personal consumption and try to sell the surplus. But they claim nobody buys from them due to the practice of untouchability. Recently, some Pardhis have been rearing goats hoping to sell them for some money.As per a report from the Tribal Development Department of Maharashtra, the development plan for housing facility, road access and subsidised vocational training o Pardhis has been in place since 2011. It claims the community has benefited, but the reality is different.Shripad Mehetre, Assistant Project Officer, Aurangabad Tribal Development Department, acknowledges the scheme's lapse. Mehetre could not provide beneficiary data for the livelihood enhancement programmes for Pardhis. Another source from the same department says on condition of anonymity that “there is neither any budget consistency from the state government nor anyone available to conduct ground surveys on the tribe.”  

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Photo Essay: The Pardhi struggle for Jal-Jameen

 13 Sep, 2022

Pardhis beg to differ, but social stigma keeps them poor and hungry

The dominant Marathas consider the nomadic tribe members outcasts, who spread diseases and commit crimes; education, electoral IDs and water and power supply are luxuries they cannot afford Beed, Maharashtra: Every time Anandgaon village witnesses a wedding, Pardhis turn both hopeful and distressed. Their mere presence anywhere near the venue is enough to make people throw a fit. But once the guests recede, the real acts of desperation begin.   “We wait until the wedding is over. Before stray dogs could claim their share, we pounce on the dustbins hoping to grab some leftovers,” says Sunita Govind Kare, portraying the sense of deprivation that chokes the members of the nomadic tribe, considered the descendants of Maharana Pratap.Sunita belongs to a 200-member-strong Pardhi settlement on the fringes of Anandgaon, around 60 km from Kaij town in Beed district of Maharashtra. It has been over three decades since they occupied the 25-acre-plot, but they still bear the tag of dacoits, thieves, hunters and ‘a disease’ by the dominant Marathas.“The villagers want us to leave. False allegations are made against us. But where will we go from here,” asks Bhagwat Motiram Kare, a resident of the settlement.Pardhis are hired neither for harvesting sugarcane—a major crop in the region—nor for menial tasks. They grow soybean for personal consumption and try to sell the surplus. “But nobody buys from us. So we have to resort to begging—even for water. Stone-pelting, hurling of fireballs at night, abuse and sexual harassment of our women and children make matters worse,” Bhagwat bemoans.All these are exactly the reasons why Pardhis in Dhakephal, located 180 km from Kaij, settled on a remote patch. Trudging through a winding dirt road crossing agricultural fields and barren stretches will take one to the government land they had 'encroached' upon (atikraman, as they say) some 25 years ago in a bid to make a home for themselves.  “Back then, this place was a forest. We decided to settle here, as hunting is our preoccupation. It also kept us aloof from other village communities. As years passed by, green cover declined and demarcations blurred. We were slowly exposed to the villagers, who wanted to drive us out. They torture us to no end, but we will not leave,” shares Rajjubai Vilas Kare, who begs door-to-door for sustenance.(Above) It was a lucky day for Anjana Chagan Kare who spotted a heap of chana dal dropped on the road. She brought it home to make puranpoli for her family of eight (Below) But empty kitchens are the norm for the Pardhi families in Dhakephal village of Kaij block, Beed district (Photos: Purnima Sah)On days she is lucky, she gets leftover rotis, and sometimes curry. “When we do not get anything, we chew on leaves!” Stamp of disapprovalAs per the 2011 Census, Pardhi population in Beed district stands at 5,556, while it is  2,23,527 in the whole of Maharashtra. Other major tribes in the state are Koli Mahadev, Dongar Koli, Gond, Raj Gond, Arakh and Advichincher.According to Bhavna Menon, programme manager, Last Wilderness Foundation — the organisation tries to better the lives of Pardhis through education, livelihood and measures to improve social status — the tribe worked for the ruling kings, and later the British, before taking to hunting. “In 1871, the British outlawed them under the Criminal Tribes Act, along with 150 other communities, and stamped them as hereditary criminals. Although this Act was repealed in 1952 to bring Pardhis under the classification of nomadic denotified tribes, the stigma still continues,” explains Menon.Even social workers like Kaushalya Chandrakant Thorat had to face brickbats for trying to reach out to them a decade ago. Neither the dominant Marathas approved of her action, nor did the Pardhis welcome her when she finally made it to her destination. “I did not stop visiting, despite incessant stone-pelting. After four months, they finally allowed me to teach their children. Slowly, the families entrusted me with their troubles,” recounts Thorat, a field coordinator for Navchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra, Kaij. She is now associated with Pardhi bastis of Anandgaon, Dhakephal and Sonijawala. With the NGO's intervention, Thorat was able to help Pardhis dig their own borewell. “But it dries up every summer, and the sarpanch does not care. Also, there is no sign of the permanent houses we were promised two years ago,” says Sushila Sanjay Kare.  The power supply is not getting anywhere either. During the local polls last year, they were promised electricity, but little did they know it would mean a “string of wire with a small bulb, generating an exorbitant bill of Rs 10,000!” Sushila says the panchayat disconnected the supply when they refused to pay. In fact, the sarpanch had got them connections only after some among them received their ID cards with Thorat’s assistance. Thorat has so far helped 70 Pardhis obtain their voter IDs, and another 12 their ration cards. “It is an exhausting process. They do not have birth certificates and have no idea about their age. I had to accompany them to the government offices and panchayat regularly to sort out such issues,” she sighs. (Above) Some Pardhi women want to sell their vermicelli in the market but nobody buys from them. Now they only make it for their personal consumption (Below) A regular morning at the Pardhi settlement when the adults have no work to rush to and children have no school to go to (Photos: Purnima Sah)    The IDs did make a difference. In the last two years, the sarpanch has been visiting the ‘outcasts’ with an eye on the vote bank. On the ground, however, changes are far and few. Kamal Arjun Pawar has to walk six km back and forth, thrice a week, to enquire about his ration. “We are told to step out of the queue and return after everybody leaves. When our turn comes, the kotedar often says our ration has not arrived.” While refusing to comment about social stigma, the sarpanch, who wished to remain anonymous, acknowledges the fact that government schemes remain inaccessible to Pardhis. "These people are nomads, not all are included in the census. In such a scenario, can we expect any government scheme exclusively for Pardhis? I am not aware of any such welfare scheme,” she says. A few dominant caste members endorsed the sarpanch’s views. “We do not want to be anywhere near Pardhis. They hunt during the day and steal at night. How can our women and children be safe around them? They are also very dirty, and by inviting them near our village, we will only invite ailments,” say people of Maratha community.  Victims of distrustTwelve years ago, Rajjubai lived through the worst days of her life when her husband Vilas Motiram Kare lost a leg and his ability to speak in a road accident. Panicked, Rajjubai rushed to Kaij government hospital, where the medical staff made her wait in the compound.“When he lost consciousness due to pain and bleeding, I screamed for help. Only then did a medical practitioner attend to him. The doctor just bandaged the bleeding leg, handed over some pills and instructed me to take him home.”Rajjubai had to drag a subconscious Vilas all the way home, as walking was the only mode of transport available for her. “We are not allowed to board a bus, train or even a rickshaw,” says Anjana Chagan Kare, another Pardhi woman.Basic healthcare and education remain unreachable for the Pardhi tribe who are victims of deep distrust and discrimination (Photos: Purnima Sah)In short, social stigma keeps them away from even health institutions. They neither receive immunisations nor are visited by ASHA workers. Approximately two weeks before childbirth, Pardhi women are isolated in makeshift huts and barred from making social and physical contacts. They have to handle all the chores on their own, besides dealing with the pain and process of birthing.“We cut the umbilical cord and remove placenta,” says Shildey, who has had four successful deliveries and two stillbirths.Once, when traditional remedies failed, Shildey walked seven km to the nearest primary health centre (PHC) carrying her child suffering from severe fever. She waited for hours outside the gate, only to be met with sheer disgust. The healthcare workers refused to touch the patient, calling both “a walking disease”. “The doctor did not examine my child, but threw a medicine strip at me from a distance,” she adds.Thorat is least surprised by such reactions. “The PHC staff once told me they are worried about contracting diseases from Pardhis in case they visit the settlements for immunisation drives,” she shares. Their worries mainly stem from the fact that Pardhis dwell in areas that stink of drainage waste, and their children mostly suffer from skin disease and breathing problems.Thorat has made consistent efforts to educate Pardhi children, too. She bagged seats for five children, after persuading the zila parishad high school for six years. However, the children were not allowed to enter the premises; a further push gave them access into the school compound; eventually, they were allowed to enter classrooms, but with a condition to stay put in a corner till evening. “Hey Pardhi, go beg! What are you doing in school, you thief!” Anjana shares how her children were frequently bullied.(Mis)planningAs per a report from the Tribal Development Department of Maharashtra, development plans — housing facility, road access and subsidised vocational training among others — for Pardhis have been in place since 2011. It claims the community has benefited, but the reality is different.Recently some Pardhis have started rearing goats, hoping to sell them to earn some money (Photo: Purnima Sah)“Under the three-year-old Pardhi Vikas Yojana, development plans are applicable to only those who own land. In areas with tribal concentration, we have provided roads, water, housing and electricity. Unfortunately, this scheme is not active at the moment and we do not know the reasons,” says Shripad Mehetre, Assistant Project Officer, Aurangabad Tribal Development Department, while acknowledging the scheme's lapse.Mehetre could not provide beneficiary data for the livelihood enhancement programmes for Pardhis. Another source from the same department says on condition of anonymity that “there is neither any budget consistency from the state government nor anyone available to conduct ground surveys on the tribe.”  Edited by Aishwarya TripathiThis story is produced as part of the Laadli Media Fellowship

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Pardhis beg to differ, but social stigma keeps them poor and hungry

 24 Aug, 2022

In rural Maharashtra, losing husband means losing right to life

Swati Biru Shimple and her children were abandoned by her in-laws after her husband's death.Unsympathetic in-laws shunt women, as young as 19, out of marital homes in Beed district, depriving them of their dignity and documents that help access government aid  Beed, Maharashtra: The ordeal of single women in rural India does not stop with just one problem. Once her husband dies, a woman is often branded a witch, harbinger of bad luck, and husband killer. She is deprived of shelter, food, livelihood, medical care and even the right to live. Ostracized for being a widow or single mother or woman abandoned by her husband, she is kept out of social gatherings.Swati Biru Shimple (26) was married off a decade ago to a much older alcoholic. Within three years, she became a mother of two. She faced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws.Her worst days began when her husband killed himself in a drunken fit when she was only 19. Her in-laws then abandoned her and the two toddlers. They also withheld her husband’s death certificate, voter ID and other documents.Her parents did not want her back, since she was already married off. However, they did help her find an accommodation  — a hut, to be precise  —  close to her marital home.“I have been living here since then, with my children. In the absence of  government documents, I was not able to admit my children in school,” Shimple laments. It was with the help of Navchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra, a non-profit based in Kaij, that her children could enrol in school. Shimple also got a job in a medical store, where she earns Rs 4,000 a month.But Shimple’s experience is not an exception. 101Reporters visited multiple villages in Kaij taluka of Beed district in Maharashtra and spoke to more than 30 such women from Kanadi, Lahuri, Kumbephal, Dhakephal, Samtanagar, Dharur and Majalgaon villages, who have faced the heat following the death of their husbands.When Aazima Sheikh* lost her husband two years ago, her father-in-law, who also happens to be her maternal uncle, raped her.  The 24-year old not only faced ostracization, but was also blamed by her parents, siblings, in-laws and relatives for her husband’s death.Aazima Sheikh, a rape survivor, has been beaten up by her in-laws on multiple occassions. They have also refused to give her documents back to her (Photo: Purnima Sah)She was sexually violated and molested several times by her brother-in-law and father-in-law. They beat her and refuse to hand back ration card, making access to basic necessities difficult. “I have started stitching clothes to make a living,” she tells 101Reporters. She now lives with her husband’s grandmother, who monitors all her activities.Swati Lahukasbe got married at 16 to an alcoholic in Motegaon village of Latur. Her husband, who used to physically abuse her, died in a road accident this March."My in-laws threw me and my son out, but kept my daughter with them. They snatched all my belongings and documents. Instead, I was saddled with a debt of Rs 1.30 lakh, which my husband had taken from sugarcane contractors to feed his alcohol addiction.”She now works as a domestic help in Kaij to repay the debt.Suman Amolpowar had no idea that she was marrying a blood cancer patient at 16. He would suffer from frequent bouts of illness, for which she was blamed.Her husband died within five years of marriage, leaving her with two sons to raise, and without any financial security. Her in-laws withheld all the documents, making it difficult for any access to help. She now works as a daily wage labourer and stitches clothes for a living.(Above) Suman Amolpawar lost access to her documents when she lost her husband to cancer. (Below) Urmila Chalak, who lost her husband to Covid is worried about losing a shelter any time now. (Photos: Purnima Sah)Urmila Rajebai Chalak lost her farmer husband to COVID-19 nine months ago. After his death, Chalak realised that the house they were living in had never been on her husband’s name. “My in-laws abuse us every day, and want us to leave. We will become homeless any day,” she says.When 101Reporters approached in-laws of these unfortunate women, they justified the ill-treatment on the grounds that daughters-in-law could never claim to be part of husband’s family.“The relationship can only exist as long as the son is alive,” a mother-in-law remarks, on condition of anonymity. Protection officers feel helpless101Reporters spoke to four taluka protection officers from the Women and Child Development Department, Beed. “Women fear that lodging complaints against in-laws will further narrow their chances of retrieving the documents. Hence, the ratio of women reporting domestic violence (by in-laws) to those facing violence is just 2:10 in our district, and they only come out when the violence is extreme,” say the protection officers, on condition of anonymity.To make matters worse, police refuse to register FIRs when women report domestic violence. “Instead, they send the victim to our counselling centre. After counselling, if she still decides to register a case against the family, we prepare the case study and submit the report in court. In most cases, the in-laws never turn up for the court hearing,” explains an officer.Since most women do not have the necessary documents in place, accessing widow pension and other schemes becomes a cumbersome task. The legal process, too, is very exhausting.“In our personal capacity, we have organised awareness programmes on domestic violence, women’s rights, and government schemes to educate women in distress. But we do not receive funds to create banners, posters or even for transport for outreach programmes,” an officer complains.Even otherwise, taluka protection officers feel theirs is the most neglected department. “We used to have a separate office; but in April, we were moved to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) department’s office. The ICDS team comprises of anganwadi workers, helpers, supervisors, child development project officers and district programme officers. Since then, the objective of our department has been lost. We are working for the ICDS team now,” the officer laments.A 2015-March 2022 report by the Beed District Protection Officer, Department of Women and Child Development, shows that protection officers have registered 670 cases of domestic violence from 11 talukas of Beed.Of the 620 registered in the court, 579 were heard. In 16 cases, women were issued protection orders, while child custody was granted in 14 others and compensation in 12. Residence order was issued in 20 cases. In 42 cases, financial assistance was given.Swati Lahukasbe, deserted by her in-laws after her husband's death, is left to fend for herself and her son in addition to paying off her husband's debt of over a lakh (Photo: Purnima Sah) Uphill task of accessing justiceNavchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra has helped 20,000 women to get their names registered in property documents involving land and house. Of these, 40 are single women. It was successful in getting 500 single women registered for various government schemes and identification of documents.“It took us almost 10 years to achieve this,” field coordinator Kaushalya Chandrakant Thorat tells 101Reporters.Ekal Mahila Sangathan, an initiative of CORO, an NGO, has been working with 19,000 women from 350 villages in Beed, Latur, Osmanabad and Nanded districts. Of them, 60% are single. “We have managed to secure property rights of nearly 170 single women over the past seven years,” claims Ram Shelke, the Single Women Campaign coordinator at CORO India.“When we identified them in 2014, none of them had any documents to their name. Neither were they aware of government schemes,” he adds.Social activists and NGOs now emphasise the need to register marriages, so that women have a document to claim property rights.Edited by Rina MukherjiThis story is produced as part of the Laadli Media Fellowship

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In rural Maharashtra, losing husband means losing right to life

 17 Aug, 2022

'If she had a voice, she could have screamed out'

Social stigma and government apathy add to the woes of the disabled and their families, who face physical and sexual abuse, and obstacles in accessing funds and employment opportunities in Maharashtra’s Beed Beed, Maharashtra: Shantubai Rahu* (50) wakes up at 5 am every day, cleans and feeds her son Rushikesh, places a clay pot with water near him and ties his hands tightly to a cot in the two-room hut, before leaving for work. This has been her routine for decades now. Rushikesh (35) is mentally challenged, and Shantubai has been on her own ever since her husband died 10 years ago. “We had 12 acres of cultivable land. But we sold most of our land for Rushikesh's treatment and are now left with only one acre. No schools cater to my son, or else I would have taken him there,” Shantubai tells 101Reporters. Shantubai has been doing odd jobs in small factories of vermicelli and spices, on farms and even as a domestic help. She faces sexual violence from men who work around her. When she returns home, her brother-in-law either beats her up or rapes her, while her son screams helplessly. (Above) Shantubai Rahu has been taking care of her 35-year-old son, Rushikesh; (Below) This is how Rushikesh's hand is tied while Shantubai goes to work (Photo: Purnima Sah)“Neighbours are aware of my situation, but they never come to my rescue. People call me a bad woman and say I am the reason for my husband’s death and the birth of a mentally-challenged boy,” Shantubai bemoans. When Shantubai approached Kaij Police Station to complain against her brother-in-law last year, she was dissuaded saying it was a family matter. “Once the brother-in-law came to know about it, he thrashed me even more. I then went to seek help from the gram panchayat, where I was shamed for talking about sexual abuse,” she adds. Sonali Ramesh* (25), a farm labourer from Lahuri village, cannot speak or hear since birth. She lost her husband in a road accident 14 years ago. She has been through many forms of violence, which she cannot communicate as she is illiterate, according to her mother-in-law Kashibai Suresh Hazare. Kashibai, and six others who work with her, claim she is often molested — at times raped, too. “Only yesterday did I see two men from the neighbourhood pull the loose end of her sari, while she was making tea on the porch,” laments Kashibai. “If she had a voice, she could have screamed and made a noise,” adds the mother-in-law, who had complained to the family of the molesters, but to no avail. “When we approached the village panchayat, we were questioned as to why such things happened only to Sonali. They said she is ‘corrupting’ men by wearing colourful saris. We were slut-shamed in front of everyone,” she adds.  (Left) Sushma Patekar from Shindi village, Kaij lost left eye to chickenpox at the age of eight. Till date she continues to face mental and physical abuse because of her disability. (Right) Sonali Ramesh, who is unable to hear or speak, has survived multiple incidents of gender-based violence (Photos: Purnima Sah) Deep-rooted social stigmaOrganisations like Navchetana Sarvangin Vikas Kendra, a not-for-profit based in Kaij, have been trying to create awareness. “Initially, villagers would pelt us with stones for saying something they did not believe in. Our major challenge is to work with the gram panchayat, which is stuck in the past and encourages stigmas in society. Since access to pension is a tedious process, we have been supporting the disabled and their families with rations, zero-interest loans and livelihood training programmes such as tailoring,” field coordinator Kaushalya Chandrakant Thorat tells 101Reporters. Nagarbai Vishwanath Thorat (65) from Hol village has recently begun sitting in a wheelchair with the help of her daughter. She has been bedridden for over a decade now.  “Last year, when my husband died, the villagers began to call me a witch and blamed me for his death. I am asked to leave as they believe my state of paralysis will kill more men here,” says Nagarbai, who struggles to receive her monthly disability pension. “I can’t move much even now, and my voice is feeble. Men and young boys take advantage of my condition,” she adds. Poor access to government aidThe National Handicapped Finance and Development Corporation (NHFDC) was set up by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, on January 24, 1997. It offers financial assistance in the form of concessional loans on convenient terms to those with 40% or more disability and aged above 18 years. Twenty years ago, Ravindra Bharat Patekar, who has polio in his lower body, obtained his Unique Disability ID (UDID) and registered under the Disability Pension Scheme. “Pension is never on time. It comes either after six months or a year. I visit the Block Development Office in Beed every month, along with my wife and mother, to enquire about my pension status. The official in charge sends us back citing lack of funds. The same is the case with my father’s pension too,” he says. His wife and mother take up sugarcane-cutting work to sustain the family. Patekar, on his part, had tried to get a bank loan in the hope of starting a wholesale snack business that would not require him to move around much. “When I went to the bank, I was termed ‘unfit’ for a loan and the in-charge said the ‘disabled’ were unreliable. Left with no option, I opened a paan (betel leaf) shop outside our home two years ago. But nobody buys from me because of my disability. I had to shut down the shop,” Patekar adds.Savita Ravindra Patekar, Ravindra Patekar's wife has been a constant caregiver and bread-earner for her family. She has also survived multiple attempts of sexual molestation (Photo: Purnima Sah)School education a challengeThe data provided by the District Social Welfare (DSW) Department, Beed, show the district has around 10,000 disabled people, with 1,181 UDIDs issued so far. Officials claim the district has 38 residential special schools catering to the disabled. “These schools are 20 years old and have 1,200 students currently. They are in Beed, Ambajogai, Parli, Patoda, Majalgaon and Kaij. The visually challenged, hard of hearing and mute and mentally challenged children study here. We have been facing issues in finding occupational therapists in all these categories for years now,” a DSW official informs 101Reporters. A District Disability Rehabilitation Centre (DDRC) will be inaugurated soon in Ambajogai. “It will serve as a nodal agency to identify the people with disabilities and facilitate their access to government schemes,” explains DSW official Ankush Nakhate.  The team will distribute aid and assistive devices such as artificial limbs, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, besides arrangement of loans for self-employment and conduct of free counselling for the family members of the disabled. Nakhate claims the disabled get a pension of Rs 1,000 (Rs 600 from the Maharashtra government and the rest from the Centre), which is transferred directly to the beneficiary bank accounts. But he acknowledges that no district-specific data are available now. However, families of the disabled state otherwise. “We don’t get any pension under the scheme, though it has been many years since we applied for it,” claims Shantubai. She is more occupied with the daily struggles; every time Shantubai takes her son for a general check-up at the Kaij government hospital, the doctors just hand her some pills and ask them to leave without doing any thorough examination. There are no opportunities for things to get better.  .*Names of sexual violence survivors changedEdited by Gia Claudette Fernandes This story is produced as part of the Laadli Media Fellowship

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'If she had a voice, she could have screamed out'

 07 Nov, 2021

Pandemic strains rural healthcare, exacerbates maternal health in rural Maharashtra

In the absence of timely medical intervention, Yashoda Chandrakanthmisa had to suffer through a complicated home birth (Picture credit - Purnima Sah)TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains first-person accounts of childbirth, stillbirth and traumatic maternal healthcare experiences, which some readers may find triggering. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED. Logistical challenges and inadequate and over-stressed healthcare facilities betrayed pregnant women even when they chose (or were forced) to seek medical care.Mokhada: Home births weren't always a choice. The implementation of lockdown affected emergency obstetric care because most pregnant women in the country still depend on public transport to reach healthcare facilities, especially those in rural areas. Mothers who gave birth during the ongoing pandemic said that the ambulances refused to come or did not pick up their calls.21-year-old Yashoda Chandrakanthmisa from Ase village birthed her second child at her home on May 18 this year with the help of her mother-in-law and a woman from their neighbourhood, in the presence of an ASHA worker. Recalling the experience to 101Reporters, Chandrakanthmisa shared, “It was raining heavily. My husband tried calling the ambulance, but due to poor network, we could not connect. My water had broken, and with no options left, I laid down on the floor to deliver my child. However, after the birth, the umbilical cord was wedged inside. My husband managed to rent a private vehicle and took me to Mokhada government hospital. I must tell you how uncomfortable and painful it was for the baby and me to travel in a van with the cord still unclamped. The baby was wrapped in a piece of cloth without even being cleaned,” bemoaned Chandrakanthmisa. She added that she had gone to the same hospital a day before as she had experienced slight labour contractions, but the doctor there sent her back saying there was still time. “If only the hospital had admitted me that day, maybe I would not have had to go through these complications,” she said. She was discharged a few hours before sunset as the hospital did not have electricity.“The hospital also did not conduct any COVID-19 test, even though I had visited twice after the delivery,” complained Chandrakanthmisa. Due to the lockdown, the newborn had not received timely immunisation. She also said that the monthly health camps did not take place from the time the pandemic began.Jyotsna Madhav Jadhav, a 21-year-old mother, delivered her second child in the middle of the lockdown this year. The birth of her child was not smooth; she had frequent seizures but no sign of labour pain. “We dialled 108 emergency ambulance services, but they said they could not make it on time. My health was deteriorating, but there was no labour pain. My in-laws arranged a private vehicle and took me to Mokhada government hospital, 15 km from our village Nilmati. The doctor there told us that it would be a caesarean birth and referred us to Nashik government hospital as Mokhada hospital is ill-equipped to perform c-sections,” said Jadhav, recounting her ordeal to 101Reporters.Her son received pulse polio immunisation there, but he has not received the BCG vaccine yet. “The ANM sister visited our home to vaccinate my baby, but we told her that the baby was too weak and asked her to come later. The truth is, the sister visits multiple villages and comes in contact with so many people; so we did not want her to touch our baby and risk his life,” said Jadhav, who works with her husband as contract labour in agricultural lands. In India, the BCG vaccine is recommended for all newborns within two weeks of birth as part of the National Immunisation Programme.Jyotsna Madhav Jadhav had a difficult childbirth; she had frequent seizures but no sign of labour pain and ambulances were unavailable. Her family arranged a private vehicle to take her from her home (below) to Mokhada but she was eventually referred to Nashik because the local hospital was not equipped to deal with the complications (Picture credit - Purnima Sah)Twenty-six-year-old Renuka Sunil Bhoir from Swaminagar village said she had to walk 3 kms to reach a PHC for routine check-ups. She gave birth to her second child in February this year. “Till the fourth month of pregnancy, I had to travel on a motorcycle to reach the PHC for sonography and routine check-ups. However, after some time, I just couldn’t sit on the motorbike and chose to walk,” lamented Bhoir. When she visited Jawhar hospital for a routine check-up, the doctor asked her to do a sonography test. She went to Mokhada government hospital next, where they asked her to consider inducing labour followed by a caesarean operation and to get it all done in Nashik hospital. “All this terrified me, and I decided to come home. Three days later, I went into labour. With the help of my mother-in-law and brother-in-law, I gave birth at home.” Her brother-in-law has no medical degree. He only knows a little about medical tools by assisting doctors in a hospital.Maternal health regresses as rural health infrastructure comes under pressure In Wakadpada village, ASHA worker Yamuna Ashok Kamri said that they were understaffed. Just two women look after three hamlets, and in the absence of one, the other person has to carry the weight. “I handle 350 women, and the other ASHA worker handles 750. The ambulance person does not pick up calls. We are seldom lucky to arrange a private vehicle for a mother to reach the hospital; this is why most mothers give birth at home,” said Kamri, who has been working as an ASHA worker since 2007. Kamri also complained that they have no work-life balance. There are also no holidays or weeks off for them. “Most of the deliveries happen at midnight. Even when we manage to take a mother for delivery, we do not know how to get back to the village as there is no transport due to Covid restrictions. There is no arrangement for us to commute from one place to another. How do we walk such long distances?” Last year they received masks and sanitisers from the government, but they did not receive anything this year. “We didn’t even receive non-contact temperature assessment devices, then how are we expected to report the number of people with COVID-19 symptoms?” she questioned.According to Rural Health Statistics 2019-2020, 14.1 % of the sanctioned posts of Health Workers (Female)/ ANM and 37 % of the sanctioned posts of Health Workers (Male) are currently vacant in the Sub-Centres. Further, there is a shortage of doctors (1,704 positions) in PHCs across the rural areas, as well as nursing staff (5,772), female health workers (5,066), pharmacists (6,240), and laboratory technicians (12,098). “An SOP needs to be implemented to manage COVID-19 in rural areas. There is a need to revamp healthcare and invest in skilled human resources such as medical, specialist and paramedical staff,” said Dr Shoba Suri, Senior Fellow, Health Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.Even before COVID-19, data from 2015-16 have shown the worsening incidence of anaemia in India’s women; the prevalence among rural women (15-49 years old) is more than 50 per cent. In the rural districts, maternal mortality remains high at 143 per 100,000 live births.(From left) ASHA worker Yamuna Ashok Kamri; Anganwadi worker Parvati Dattushid; and Sunita Ashok Warghade, Project Community Mobiliser from Aroehan all work under challenging circumstances in villages like Swaminagar (below) where the pandemic has put undue stress on healthcare resources (Picture credit - Purnima Sah)The WHO recommends at least eight prenatal check-ups, one ultrasound before 24 weeks of pregnancy and a daily intake of iron and folic acid supplements to prevent maternal anaemia, neural tube defects and preterm birth, but from the time the pandemic hit India, many women in the rural areas have avoided the above recommendation.Parvati Dattushid, an Anganwadi worker for the past 15 years, said the ration supply had been disrupted since the pandemic hit. “I have to rent a motorcycle and source the ration from town in two parts because the nutrition of many women in the village depends on the Anganwadi’s supply,” said Dattushid, who provides weekly ration to the mothers.Sunita Ashok Warghade, Project Community Mobiliser from NGO Aroehan, said that very few women visited health centres for basic health check-ups during the pandemic. “Recently, I convinced two expectant mothers to go for sonography. Their families did not agree to it. We visit door-to-door to educate people about the virus, the importance of testing and consulting doctors for health concerns, but only a few get our message. We had set up multiple vaccination camps, but not a single villager turned up,” said Warghade, who looks after 15 villages.“Rural healthcare has always been neglected. It was slowly getting better with the National Rural Health Mission, but with COVID-19, everything is back at square one,” said Kaustubh Gharat from Aroehan.

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Pandemic strains rural healthcare, exacerbates maternal health in rural Maharashtra

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