Christians in India were the targets of 305 violent incidents in the past nine months, according to a new report.
The report, produced by three civil rights groups, concluded that Christians faced persecution in 21 of the country’s 28 states, said the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
The fact-finding report was published by United Against Hate, the Association for Protection of Civil Rights, and the United Christian Forum on Oct. 21.
A.C. Michael, national coordinator of the United Christian Forum, said: “This indicates that organized violence against Christians is spreading across the country.”
The report found that the violence peaked in September when there were 69 violent incidents, compared to 50, the next highest figure, in August.
India, the world’s second-most populous country after China, is ranked 10th on the World Watch List for the persecution of Christians compiled by the advocacy group Open Doors.
According to a 2011 census, 79.8% of India’s 1.38 billion population is Hindu, 14.2% Muslim, and 2.3% Christian.
India has the second-largest Catholic population in Asia after the Philippines. There are around 20 million Catholics in the country, comprising Latin Rite Catholics as well as members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) listed India as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom in 2020 for the first time in more than a decade.
“The government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” the commission’s 2021 report said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Pope Francis to visit India during a meeting at the Vatican in October.
He was the first Indian prime minister to visit the pope at the Vatican since June 2000, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee met with John Paul II during an official visit to Italy.
India and the Holy See established diplomatic relations shortly after India gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Paul VI became the first pope to visit India in 1964, when he attended the International Eucharistic Congress in Mumbai (known then as Bombay).
The last pope to travel to India was John Paul II, who made a trip to New Delhi in 1999.
New Delhi, India — Catholic nuns are rejoicing in the success of an historic yearlong protest by India’s farmers against federal reforms that deregulated crop prices and opened fields to corporate interests. Many hail the farmers’ stand as the country’s second freedom movement, the first being Gandhi’s.
Sr. Jyoti Pinto, former superior general of the Bethany Sisters in Mangalore and a social worker, applauded the victory of “the longest post-independent struggle in India with the weapon of non-violence.”
India won independence from the British in 1947 after decades of nonviolent protests led by Mahatma Gandhi.
Praising the farmers’ perseverance, Pinto told GSR, “It is an indication that democracy is still alive in India.”
Over the weekend of Dec. 11 and 12, the farmers began folding up their camps outside Delhi, the nation’s capital, after the legislature made good on the federal government’s agreement last month to repeal three controversial 2020 agricultural reforms, drop criminal proceedings against demonstrators and consider adopting minimum crop prices.
Thousands of farmers had camped on the borders of Delhi since Nov. 26, 2020, and more than 700 of them died from the effects of extreme heat, cold and COVID-19. A few took their own lives.
Welcoming the success of “the longest and greatest historical protest in the entire world,” activist and Presentation Sr. Dorothy Fernandes, says farmers “have given a loud and clear message of what is possible if we are united in purpose and not afraid to pay the price.”
Fernandes, the new national secretary of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for Catholic religious, told GSR that the farmers won because of their “clarity of thought and meticulous organization of people and resources.”
The farmers were led by the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front, a coalition of more than 40 farmers’ unions formed in November 2020.
Almost 60% of India’s 1.4 billion population works primarily in agriculture, which represents an estimated 20% share of the country’s economic output, national statistics state.
The protests began after the government hastily passed three farm bills claiming to overhaul the country’s agricultural sector and benefit the farmers. The farmers, on the other hand, saw the laws as a ploy to turn over farmland and markets to corporate interests, undermining their ability to make a living.
The protests began September 2020 in Punjab in the north and spread to other states in India. As the government refused to heed them, the farmers came to the national capital. After their entry was denied, the farmers camped at three main entry points to Delhi.
The government and the farmers had several rounds of futile discussions initially. Meanwhile, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters labeled the farmers anti-nationals funded by overseas Sikh secessionist groups.
The laws also favored corporate control of the production and distribution of the food crops. The traditional farmers, especially from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, opposed them. The protesting farmers attracted national and international support for their demonstration.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the farmers were sharply at odds for a year. Modi Nov. 19 surprised the farmers and others by announcing the repeal of the farm laws while addressing the nation. The parliament followed it up a week later by repealing the laws without debate.
Some state governments announced compensation to the relatives of the farmers who had died on the Delhi borders.
The farmers’ union leaders say they will review the situation Jan. 15, 2022, and relaunch the protest if the government fails to keep its promises.
Fernandes’ forum was among Catholic groups that had backed the farmers, although the official church bodies in India stayed away from the stir.
Fernandes and her forum members came to New Delhi to join the farmers. She says the farmers’ protest has helped highlight “the meaning and understanding of struggle in a peaceful democratic manner.”
She hails their determination and sense of purpose, saying, “Even the loss of lives of their brothers and sisters did not deter them from their goal. Instead, the deaths only strengthened them and encouraged them to keep going.”
Presentation Sr. Shalini Mulackal, a leading woman theologian in India, also had joined the farmers on the Delhi borders on several occasions, after realizing the farm laws were aimed at “changing the way agricultural produce is marketed, sold and stored across the country.”
She says she is convinced that the main purpose of the farm laws was to benefit a few corporate houses in India.
The farmers’ protest, she says, was against “the injustices embedded in the new farm laws” that would have harmed not just the farmers but millions of consumers with big business controlling production and supply.
“I look at the farmers’ protest as a sign of hope. They are the only group protesting against the present government and their policies, which are anti-poor, anti-minorities and anti-people,” says Mulackal, who labeled the dispute a “second independence movement” of India.
The farmers’ victory has enthused Holy Cross Sr. Vijaya Sebastian, a social worker and health care activist in a few northern Indian states and a supporter of the farmers’ actions.
“We have to wait and see if the government keeps its promises. We need the deliverables, not the promises,” says Sebastian, who directs the Holy Cross Consortium with nearly 2,000 members in eight provinces in India.
Another supporter is Sr. Ajitha Mathew, a social worker who manages a movement of women farmers in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The member of the Sisters of the Queen of Apostles welcomes the farmers’ victory but remains skeptical about the government keeping its promises.
“I cheer the farmers’ victory after more than a year of protests in the open, fighting scorching sun and freezing winter, and the pandemic,” she told GSR.
Mathew plans to celebrate the victory with her women associates on Dec. 23, which is designated as Farmers Day in India.
Sr. Jofi Joseph in Kerala, southern India, welcomed the end of the farmers’ protest and called for pro-farmer legislation. The member of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel made headlines in September after the Kerala High Court allowed her and 15 others to kill wild boars that destroyed crops. The wild beasts are as damaging to farmers as corporations, she told GSR, speaking in Malayalam.
Priests and brothers also supported the farmers.
“It is a big victory for the farmers, whatever may be the political compulsions for Prime Minister Modi,” says Indian Missionary Society Fr. Anand Mathew, who had joined the protesting farmers in Delhi with other priests and nuns.
The farmers’ victory “is an inspiration and tremendous encouragement for those of us who are on the path of Satyagraha [a form of nonviolent protest, propagated by Mahatma Gandhi],” said the activist priest, who organized a series of protests, rallies and meetings on the farmers’ issue in Varanasi, his base in Uttar Pradesh state.
“We Farm,” a farmers movement in Kerala, welcomed the end to the protest but hinted the farmers will wait for the actual implementation of government promises.
Mulackal says the present Indian government’s policies are “diametrically opposed” to the Gospel values.
“Showing our solidarity with a group that is clearly standing against anti-Kingdom values is the least we can do as Christians,” asserts the nun who said she was privileged to spend time with the protesting farmers.
Air pollution is cutting short the lives of billions of people by up to six years, according to a new report, making it a far greater killer than smoking, car crashes or HIV/Aids.
Coal burning is the principal culprit, the researchers said, and India is worst affected, with the average citizen dying six years early. China has slashed air pollution in the last seven years, but dirty air is still cutting 2.6 years from its people’s lifespan.
Fossil fuel burning is causing air pollution and the climate crisis, but nations have much greater power to cut dirty air within their own borders. The climate crisis is now also adding to air pollution by driving wildfires, completing a vicious circle, the scientists said.
“Air pollution is the greatest external threat to human health on the planet, and that is not widely recognised, or not recognised with the force and vigour that one might expect,” said Prof Michael Greenstone at the University of Chicago. Greenstone and colleagues developed the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), which converts air pollution levels into their impact on life expectancy.
The average global citizen loses 2.2 years of life with today’s levels of air pollution and, if nothing changes, that adds up to 17bn lost years, Greenstone said. “What else on the planet is causing people to lose 17bn years of life?”
“Furthermore, we’re not just letting it happen, we’re actually causing it,” he said. “The most striking thing is that there are big countries where, effectively, a combination of the government and [societal] norms are choosing to allow people to live really dramatically shorter and sicker lives.” He said switching to cleaner energy and enforcing air quality measures on existing power plants have cut pollution in many countries.
The report estimated the number of additional years of life people would gain if air pollution levels in their country were reduced to World Health Organization guidelines. In India, the figure is 5.9 years – in the north of the country 480 million people breathe pollution that is 10 times higher than anywhere else in the world, the scientists said. Cutting pollution would add 5.4 years in Bangladesh and Nepal, and 3.9 years in Pakistan.
In central and west Africa, the impacts of particulate pollution on life expectancy are comparable to HIV/Aids and malaria, but receive far less attention, the report said. For example, the average person in the Niger delta stands to lose nearly six years of life, with 3.4 years lost by the average Nigerian.
China began a “war against pollution” in 2013 and has reduced levels by 29%. This is adding an average of 1.5 years on to lives, assuming the cuts are sustained, the scientists said, and shows rapid action is possible.
“Coal is the source of the problem in most parts of the world,” said Greenstone. “If these [health] costs were embedded in prices, coal would be uncompetitive in almost all parts of the world.”
Fossil gas is significantly less polluting than coal and Japan said in June that it would offer $10bn in aid for energy decarbonisation projects in southeast Asia, including gas power stations. But gas burning still drives global heating and Christiana Figueres, former UN climate chief, said on Sunday: “Let’s be clear, gas is not an alternative to coal and nor is it a transition fuel. Investments in new gas must stop immediately if carbon neutrality is to be reached by 2050.”
The AQLI report is based on research comparing the death rates of people living in more and less polluted places, with heart and lung problems being the largest source of early deaths. The analysis is based on small particle pollution, but is likely to include the effects of other air pollutants as these all tend to be high in the same locations. The estimates of air pollution around the world were derived from satellite data at 3.7-mile (6km) resolution.
MUMBAI, – Several Indian states are building facilities with more paediatric beds, plus oxygen, due to concern that children returning to school without being vaccinated will be among the most vulnerable during a third wave of coronavirus infections.
Health administrators have taken heed of trends in the United States, where a record number of children have been hospitalised as the coronavirus Delta variant, first found in India, has surged through unvaccinated populations.
During a second wave of infections in India that peaked in April and May, hundreds of thousands of people died for want of oxygen and medical facilities, and now there are concerns that another third wave will gather during the winter months.
“We don’t know how the virus will behave, but we cannot afford to be unprepared this time around,” Suhas Prabhu, who heads the Paediatric Task Force in the big western state of Maharashtra, said.
“No mother should have to run around looking for a hospital bed when her child is sick.”
The Maharashtra government has stockpiled medicines, and built facilities for additional pediatric beds and oxygen provisions in new centres in Mumbai and Aurangabad.
Built on empty stretches of land or in re-purposed stadiums, the Mumbai facilities have a total of 1,500 pediatric beds, most of them with oxygen.
“We can upgrade this capacity to double if needed,” Suresh Kakani, a senior official with Mumbai’s civic body said.
In neighbouring Gujarat, authorities have set up 15,000 pediatric oxygen beds, health commissioner Jai Prakash Shivahare said.
India provides vaccines to people above the age 18. Most vaccines administered in India are made by AstraZeneca Plc , while shots produced by local manufacturer Bharat Biotech are also being used.
Another local firm Zydus Cadilla and Bharat Biotech are separately testing vaccines for children but the results are not expected until the year end.
Meantime, schools in at least 11 of India’s 28 states have opened after more than a year of closures, raising worries these could become breeding grounds for transmission of the virus.
As of March 2021, less than 1 pct of India’s coronavirus deaths were in the under 15 age group, according to the health ministry, and officials say the severity of the disease in this age group has been minimal so far.
Epidemiologists say there is no evidence to show that the Delta variant or any other mutations affect children more than other parts of the population.
New Delhi, India — An octogenarian Jesuit human rights defender who died in July while in custody for alleged terrorist activities has emerged as the new icon for Catholic religious in India.
Fr. Stanislaus Lourduswamy, popularly called Stan Swamy, died July 5 in a Catholic hospital in Mumbai, western India, where he was brought 38 days beforehand from a jail for treatment of multiple illnesses, including COVID-19.
The 84-year-old Jesuit had “identified with the poor tribal and Dalit communities who were victims of structural injustice, says human rights activist Sr. Sujata Jena, who in 2016 attended a convention on Right to Food that Swamy organized at his base of Ranchi, capital of Jharkhand state in eastern India. “He worked relentlessly to ensure justice for them and died in judicial custody without getting justice for himself.”
Swamy “has challenged Catholic religious in India with his life and work. They can no more remain in their comfort zone after he sacrificed his life for the poor and marginalized,” states Jena, a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who is based in Bhubaneswar, capital of the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
The “real tribute” the Catholic religious can offer Swamy is to recommit to serve the poor and oppressed, she told Global Sisters Report. “Many oppressed by the system are languishing in jails.” (Jena is a GSR columnist and panelist on The Life, a forum of sisters whose views are published monthly in GSR.)
Presentation Sr. Shalini Mulackal, a theology professor in New Delhi, says of Swamy, “He is the Indian version of St. Óscar Romero,” a bishop who was killed in 1980 for speaking out against social injustice and violence in El Salvador and canonized as a saint in 2018.
Mulackal had first met Swamy in 1978 as a novice while attending an exposure program he conducted at the Indian Social Institute in Bangalore (now Bengaluru).
Swamy’s “stand for justice and for the poor and the way he was ready to pay the price has inspired many, not only in India, but all over the world. His death was not in vain,” Mulackal told GSR.
Sr. Robancy A. Helen, an activist in Tamil Nadu, Swamy’s native state in southern India, says the Jesuit “has become an inspiration for all those who wish to live for others.”
Swamy was arrested Oct. 8, 2020, by the National Investigation Agency, India’s counterterrorist task force, at his residence in Ranchi for alleged terrorist activities, including a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was taken the same night to Mumbai, some 1,060 miles southwest, and a court there sent him to jail the next day.
Swamy was the last of 16 writers, academics, lawyers, students and activists arrested by national agents in what is called the Bhima-Koregaon case. The police suspected them to be Maoists, a banned radical left-wing group that instigated the 2018 violence during a Dalit celebration at Bhima-Koregaon, a village near Pune town southeast of Mumbai in Maharashtra state. The 2018 event was the bicentennial of a battle seen as a historic victory by a British Army dominated by Dalits, the lowest level in India’s caste system.
A few days before his arrest, Swamy had released a video in which he narrated how detectives had questioned him for 15 hours over five days in July 2020. The interrogators had produced “some extracts” allegedly taken from his computer to prove his links with Maoists. Swamy dismissed them as “fabrications” that were “stealthily” put into his computer.
“Neither the police nor the agency that arrested Swamy could produce evidences to prove his alleged crimes,” says Helen, a member of the Religious Institute of Christ the Redeemer, Idente Missionaries.
She cites recent media reports that support Swamy’s suspicion. Arsenal Consulting, a United States-based computer forensics firm, has found that the computers of two accused in the Bhima-Koregaon case were hacked using malicious software to plant incriminating letters later used as primary evidence against them.
Swamy ended the video with some awareness about what might unfold in the dissent against India’s ruling party, saying, “I’m happy to be a part of this process because I’m not a silent spectator but I’m part of the game. I’m ready to pay the price, whatever be it.”
Swamy’s death spurred an unprecedented outpouring of grief and condemnation from across the globe, including from the United Nations.
Among those condemning Swamy’s death in custody was Mary Lawlor, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, who on July 15 warned that the incident would tarnish India’s human rights record.
India’s External Affairs Ministry rebutted the criticisms and claimed Swamy was arrested “following due process under law.” A ministry spokesperson told reporters July 6 that the courts had rejected Swamy’s bail applications because of the specific nature of charges against him.
Swamy was exposed to tribal exploitation in 1965, when as a seminarian of Jamshedpur Jesuit Province he taught tribal students at St. Xavier’s High School in Lupungutu village near Chaibasa in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district, which is rich in iron ore. In a 2018 interview with online outlet The Wire, Swamy recalled helplessly watching the agents of outside lenders and businessmen as they swindled goods and land from the local tribal people, whose cultural practice has been to give back to nature, always leaving some fruit on the trees for the birds.
Since 1991, Swamy worked with the Jharkhand Organization for Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization opposing displacement of tribal communities, also known as the Adivasis, because of development projects.
In 2000, he set up Bagaicha, a research institute near Ranchi. Swamy organized local youth and helped them understand their issues — land alienation and displacement caused by mining, dams and other development projects implemented without the people’s consent.
India’s mining lobby and corporate firms are accused of indiscriminate exploitation of Jharkhand, one of the richest mineral zones in the world. It accounts for 40% of the mineral and 29% of the coal reserves in India.
As local resistance grew, the administration jailed hundreds of young people in 2014 and 2015. Swamy formed the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee and planned counterstrategies with social and human rights activists and civic organizations. He filed a case in the Jharkhand High Court, seeking information on pretrial detainees, mostly tribals.
Such works are cited as a reason for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat in the Jharkhand legislative assembly elections in 2019. The Bhima-Koregaon case then gave Swamy’s opponents an excuse to target him.
Mulackal holds the Indian government and the country’s judicial system responsible for Swamy’s death as a pretrial detainee. “Even though he was allowed to go to a hospital for treatment at the end, and died there, it was a custodial death,” the theologian told GSR.
While Helen says Swamy “was murdered for doing the will of God,” Holy Cross Sr. Manju Kulapuram, national secretary of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace who knew Swamy when she worked in Jharkhand, concludes that “vested interests” got rid of Swamy to grab the tribal lands without resistance and offer them to the corporations.
Kochurani Abraham, a laywoman theologian, says the “unholy” political-corporate nexus eliminated Swamy as his “integrity and prophetic voice” had threatened their “exclusive development plans,” just as “Jesus was eliminated by the tie-up between the religious and political powers of his times.”
Jesuit Fr. P.A. Chacko, a Swamy associate who has served the church in Jharkhand for the past five decades, says his elder confrere had “stuck his neck out to walk with the downtrodden” and paid the price with his life.
Chacko admits that no Jesuit in India has gone this far until now.
“Most of us looked at him from the sidelines with our own reservations. Some of us admired him from a safe distance. It was his lay friends and the many in the civil society who believed what he said and did,” Chacko said.
Some Catholic leaders want the church immediately to declare Swamy a martyr, a potentially speedier route to sainthood.
Mumbai-based Redemptorist Fr. Ivel Mendanha, who called for Swamy’s canonization during a Sunday sermon on July 11, says most Indians came to know about Swamy’s life and work after his arrest. “They felt for him, they prayed for him, and they were inspired by his unflinching commitment to living the Gospel,” Mendanha told GSR.
If Swamy “is not a saint, who is?” asks social activist Claretian Fr. George Kannanthanam, arguing that the Jesuit sacrificed his life for the causes for which Jesus lived and died.
However, Kulapuram pleads that the church not put Swamy on a pedestal. Instead, she urges it should follow “the spirituality of Jesus of Nazareth” that Swamy promoted to bring great changes among the marginalized.
Helen says Swamy’s courage to fight injustice until the end was “mind-blowing.” His prophetic voice, she predicts, will help many advocates for justice to rise from the oppressed communities.
Sr. Joel Urumpil, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who works in Jharkhand, says her life changed totally after attending Swamy’s classes in Bangalore in the late 1980s. She describes herself until then as “a pious person” who was “bandaging wounds,” inculcated by the church’s rules and teachings that sanctified service without analysis and worshipped “a false Jesus who was meek, humble, obedient, and ready to die for the suffering humanity but never questioned [injustice].”
Swamy helped Urumpil’s class “escape age-old practices that prevented them from getting involved with marginalized people for systematic change.” She added that he was “embarrassingly open to letting the students question authority, rules and rubrics, and even the existence of God.”
Mulackal says Swamy’s training programs had “a transformative impact” on the participants. “They became very conscious and critical of the socioeconomic and political situation of our country. Some even left religious life or priesthood because of their strong conviction.”
Swamy encouraged those he trained to be proactive in the Indian church’s efforts to assist impoverished people, Mulackal says. “In the late ’70s and ’80s, many religious congregations opened houses in rural areas and city slums to work for and with the poor.”
“He could have been a professor or principal of a reputed Jesuit-run college,” says social worker Sr. Ekta Ekka, a tribal from Jharkhand and a Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Graces based in the northern Indian Diocese of Meerut.
“Instead, he lived among Adivasis and fought for their constitutional rights for the past 50 years.”
NEW DELHI/SATARA, India, – Urban Indians are getting COVID-19 shots much faster than the hundreds of millions of people living in the countryside, government data shows, reflecting rising inequity in the nation’s immunisation drive.
In 114 of India’s least developed districts – collectively home to about 176 million people – authorities have administered just 23 million doses in total.
That’s the same number of doses as have been administered across nine major cities — New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Thane and Nagpur — which combined have half the population of the least developed districts.
The disparity was even stronger last month, after the government allowed private sales of vaccines for adults aged under 45 years, an offer which favoured residents of cities with larger private hospital networks. For the first four weeks of May, those nine cities gave 16% more doses than the combined rural districts, data from the government’s Co-WIN vaccination portal shows.
“My friends from the city were vaccinated at private hospitals,” said Atul Pawar, a 38-year-old farmer from Satara, a rural western district of Maharashtra, India’s wealthiest state. “I am ready to pay, but doses are not available and district borders are sealed because of the lockdown.”
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said in a statement on Saturday that reports of vaccine inequity in India were “inaccurate and speculative in nature”.
“Liberalised pricing and accelerated national COVID-19 vaccination strategy ensures vaccine equity,” it said, adding that smaller cities were also getting doses like the big ones.
The ministry said it had asked states with fewer private hospitals to review the status of their vaccination campaigns and encourage some government-empanelled hospitals to strike deals with vaccine companies if need be.
India has administered more than 222 million doses since starting its campaign in mid-January – only China and the United States have administered more – but it has given the required two doses to less than 5% of its 950 million adults.
Rural India is home to more than two-thirds of the country’s 1.35 billion people. While urban areas account for a disproportionately large share of the confirmed COVID-19 cases, those concerned about the spread of the virus in the countryside say statistics undercount cases in villages, where testing is less comprehensive.
The health system in several regions in India collapsed in April and May as the country reported the world’s biggest jump in coronavirus infections, increasing pressure on the immunisation programme.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government offers vaccines to vulnerable people, healthcare workers and those aged over 45 for free. Since last month, individual states have also been expected to procure vaccines for younger adults, or to provide them commercially through the private sector.
Poorer states say this leaves their residents more vulnerable. The eastern state of Jharkhand, where nearly all districts are categorised as poor, this week urged Modi to give it free vaccines for all age groups.
In many states the doses for those under 45 are available mostly or entirely in urban areas. Some officials say this is intentional, as the infection spreads more easily in crowded cities.
“It’s because of high-positivity” in urban areas, said Bijay Kumar Mohapatra, health director of the eastern state of Odisha, explaining the state’s decision to prioritise cities.
Major international and domestic firms such as Microsoft , Pepsi, Amazon, Reliance Industries , Adani Group and Tata Motors have organised inoculations for their employees, in many cases in partnership with private hospitals. Most of these companies and the huge private hospitals that serve them are located in urban centres.
Vaccination rates in rural areas have also been depressed because of patchier internet access to use the complex online system for signing up for shots, and possibly because of greater hesitancy among villagers than among city dwellers.
India’s Supreme Court criticised the government’s handling of the vaccination programme this week and ordered it to provide a breakdown of shots given in rural and urban areas.
“Private hospitals are not equally spread out” across the country and “are often limited to bigger cities with large populations”, the top court said in its order dated May 31.
“As such, a larger quantity will be available in such cities, as opposed to the rural areas,” it said. Private hospitals may prefer to sell doses “for lucrative deals directly to private corporations who wish to vaccinate their employees”.
Dr. Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the risk of inequity was that parts of India would build up immunity disproportionately.
“It can leave the rural population relatively more vulnerable.”
Last year, Shyam*, 17, became one of the thousands of children in danger of living on the streets of India.
Shyam’s father had abandoned his family in Gudhiyari – a village in Raipur in Chhattisgarh state – eight years earlier. Shyam’s older brother, Gopi, who was 16 at the time, had turned to alcohol to cope, subsequently becoming violent towards their mother, 47-year-old Kishori*.
To protect her and help support the family, Shyam dropped out of school when he was 10 and worked odd jobs as a dishwasher. But, unable to bear the stress and violence at home, he ran away in February 2020, in the hope of reaching Mumbai.
“I did go to school regularly,” Shyam explains. “But then my father left us and we did not know for a long time where he was.
“We found out through relatives that he had remarried. My mother worked several odd jobs to put food on the table. My brother turned to alcohol and would fight with her and beat her up. I felt I had no choice but to quit school to protect my mother from my brother and help her out. But then one day I fought with my brother and left home in anger. I thought I would go to Mumbai and look for work there,” he says.
India has the largest railway network in Asia. A 2009 study conducted by Railway Children India (RCI), a child rights organisation that helps at-risk youngsters at railway stations, street children and slum dwellers, found that 121,860 children were then at risk at 32 railway platforms across all 16 railway zones (there are 17 zones now).
This equals a child arriving alone at a big city railway station and being at risk every five minutes in India.
“These children have run away or have been abandoned and are instantly faced with the prospect of violence, exploitation, trafficking and abuse,” says Navin Sellaraju, CEO of RCI.
Shyam was one of the “lucky” ones. He was rescued by The Railway Children (RCI). It picked him up at Raipur station and reunited him with his family. As a result, he was offered counselling and enrolled in a vocational training school in the neighbouring city of Durg which was being run by a local non-government organisation (NGO), Chetna Women and Children Society. His brother also received counselling.
But, then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and threw their lives back in disarray. Shyam was doing well until a nationwide, 21-day lockdown was implemented overnight on March 24, 2020, in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19. His mother, a domestic worker, and Gopi, a labourer, both lost their jobs. The RCI stepped in to help provide the family with groceries.
But, with India in the grip of the second wave of the pandemic, Kishori and Gopi are still out of work and the family is struggling to make ends meet. Kishori hopes that as soon as the lockdown eases, she can send Gopi back to the rehabilitation centre to continue with his addiction counselling.
Children in India, particularly those from marginalised communities, had it tough even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the last Census in 2011 shows that India has 10.1 million child labourers.
More than 200,000 Indian children are working or living on the street, according to Save the Children’s 2019 Spotlight on Invisibles survey, which covered 10 cities in the country. Nearly 60 percent of these children are between the ages of six and 14.
Governmental organisations like the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the 24-hour child emergency helpline (Childline 1098), district-level child welfare committees (CWCs) and a vast network of collaborative organisations in the public and private sectors have worked to improve the standard of living of children in India and have made some great strides over the years.
However, they all agree that much of the progress made in addressing child labour, education, nutrition, mental health, prevention of domestic violence and child marriage has been undone by COVID-19.
“Financial instability in families, which can arise for a multitude of reasons, can quickly snowball into more dire situations,” explains Anurag Kundu, chair of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR). “These include eviction from homes for non-payment of rent, children dropping out of schools or running away, alcoholism, child labour, drug addiction or poor nutrition, leaving India’s children vulnerable to untold adversity and emotional trauma.”
The rise in child marriages
One form of adversity is child marriage.
On February 11, the Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA), a Bengaluru-based grassroots organisation and one of the collaborators behind Childline 1098, received a phone call alerting them to an impending child marriage.
Sixteen-year-old Deepa Byrappa*’s parents intended to marry her to a 26-year-old man.
The APSA, along with representatives from the Bengaluru Urban CWC and the Byappanahalli police, in whose jurisdiction the marriage was going to happen, went to Deepa’s home. She told CWC workers that she did not want to get married but was being forced by her parents who said they would not need to meet the cost of a large wedding if she married during the COVID pandemic.
Deepa was placed in a government shelter until March 4, when her parents submitted a written undertaking that they would not have her married until she was of legal age (18). Deepa returned home – and was married off a few days later.
Childline was informed and legal proceedings initiated. The parents of the bride and the groom were arrested and today Deepa lives in a government-run girl’s shelter.
Vasco, India — Kasturi Rupali turns into a bundle of joy when she sees Sr. Lourenca Marques. “Sister is everything to me, my father and mother. What I am today is because of her,” the 26-year-old daughter of a commercial sex worker says, clasping the hands of Marques, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Holy Family of Nazareth.
The young woman came to Asha Sadan (house of hope), a center the congregation manages at Baina Beach near Vasco, the port town of Goa state in western India.
Rupali grew up at the center from infancy, as did Anand Patil, who turned up for a visit on a November afternoon in 2020.
“Sister Lourenca put me in one of the best boarding schools run by Capuchin fathers in Goa. I have no regrets today,” Patil, 32, said with joy radiating from his mustached face.
Now employed, he has married a girl who had grown up with the Holy Family nuns from childhood.
Rupali, Patil and his wife are among more than 80 children of commercial sex workers and HIV-positive women Marques has helped to forget their dreary past and settle in life.
“These children are very helpful to me now. They help one another financially, too,” Marques told GSR, pointing to the two visitors. She said Asha Sadan’s former residents now gather together for holidays. “I take them for picnics. We have Christmas celebrations together. We are like a big family,” the 56-year-old nun continued with pride ringing in her voice.
It all began 28 years ago when Marques accompanied her then superior, Sr. Jane Pinto, to Baina to introduce her to their new mission in Goa’s infamous red-light district, which was confined to a single street. The nuns’ mission aimed to give a new life to the children of commercial sex workers and women living with HIV.
“I was shocked to see little children wrapped in dirty clothes begging on the beach,” recalled Marques, who had completed a bachelor’s degree in social work.
The beach was dotted with a stretch of huts where women cooked for their children between meeting their clients.
“The women and their pimps looked at us with suspicion, as if we were a threat to their thriving business. We felt strange moving around in a strange world,” Marques recalled.
The women were unapproachable and unfriendly. “We could not enter some houses, as customers were waiting for them. We were puzzled how we would carry on our mission among such people,” she told GSR.
The nuns stayed in Baina for easy access to the women and their children. They began with family visits, although no one welcomed them initially.
“I came with a statue of Mother Mary. She has helped me,” Marques said with a smile. Their persistent visits helped build a rapport with the women and their children. Trust in the nuns grew gradually.
In the initial years, Marques found the local “respectable people” hesitant to disclose that they also lived in Baina, near the red-light neighborhood.
The main customers for the women were sailors, who came to the port.
In 2002, Manohar Parrikar, the then chief minister, or governor, of Goa, tried to end the flesh trade in the state by torching the huts in Baina. “But now it has spread all over Goa,” Marques bemoaned. Some women still operate from Baina.
The nuns found most women in the trade were ages 14-25. They came from the nearby states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra and were trafficked into prostitution because of poverty or ignorance. “Sometimes their family, relatives or even boyfriends lure them to the trade,” Marques explained.
Sr. Maria Angela, also a Holy Family sister and Marques’ companion, says a lighter-skinned girl earns between 300 and 500 rupees (US$4.06-$6.77) from a client while a dark-skinned worker gets from 50 rupees (US68 cents) to 100 rupees.
“A part of the earnings would go to brothel owners and for cosmetics,” Angela told GSR.
The young nun recalled a woman telling her that she felt like a caged bird on the red street. She pleaded with the brothel owner to let her go home, but she refused, saying the woman had to pay back the money the owner had paid to the agent who brought her there.
“She had to sleep with men even when she fell sick. She was warned that if she escaped, they would track her down and kill her and her parents,” Angela said.
Women who spoke to GSR asked not to be identified.
One of them, still living in Baina, said she had landed there after a “well-dressed woman” visited her village in Karnataka and promised a lucrative job in the city.
“We were uneducated and were happy to earn some money. We trusted her and took the bus to Goa with our parents’ consent. Only after reaching here did we realize the trap she had set for us,” she said.
Some women have surrendered to their fate. “My father sold me when I was 14. I get good food and clothing. There is nothing to complain about. After a few years, I will be free from my debts and then I will become a madam and get girls to work for me,” said a young woman.
Marques says her congregation took up the mission as a challenge among the women, who are hidden from society.
The sisters set up Asha Sadan on the ground and fourth floors of a four-story building, a five-minute drive from Baina Beach. They then welcomed the children from Baina Beach to Asha Sadan. Sometimes mothers would bring their children to the nuns’ center while they continued working.
“We visited the hutments two or three times a day to bring the small children to the center to feed and teach them. Some would run away and loiter around,” Marques said of their initial days.
The nuns still manage the day care center for children and women. These days, they prepare children ages 3-6 for primary education, besides feeding them nutritional meals.
“As they grew up and could manage by themselves, I placed them in one more house [a group home 30 minutes drive from Baina]. The older ones look after the younger ones now. I visit them each day. Many are day scholars now. And I live in my convent,” Marques said.
During holidays, the children would be brought to Asha Sadan. “We would sleep on the floor, girls on one side of me and boys on the other side,” Marques said.
The nun also placed some promising students like Patil in reputable boarding schools.
Rupali said she came to the nuns as an infant. “My maternal aunts brought me to her [Lourenca] as my mother was too sick. I had two elder brothers. I have not met them. … One of my aunts also stayed with me, and the sister educated her. She is doing well in life now.”
The aunt is now 36.
Rupali was between jobs, staying at Asha Sadan. She has found a new job as a receptionist in a hospital in Margao, Goa’s commercial capital.
KOLKATA, India, – Since he was a child, Santipada Gon Chaudhuri had sought ways to help India’s rural poor, so when the electrical engineer was invited to visit a co-worker’s home in the Himalayan village of Herma in the early 1980s, he saw his chance.
“I was appalled to see how local communities were living in darkness after sunset,” remembered Chaudhuri, 71, who then worked for the government in the northeastern state of Tripura.
“Some used kerosene lamps, but even kerosene was not always easy to get. Since I had both the skill and position to try and provide power to them, it made me act,” he said.
The villages of Tripura are located on tough, hilly terrain, where Chaudhuri realised it would be hard to put up power lines.
“But they had solar energy in abundance,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
In 1983, he used government funding to install solar panels for 70 homes, as well as running a community television and water pump – the first time anyone in the hamlet had seen electric light.
That small project sparked a career dedicated to bringing energy to people in impoverished, remote communities, a mission that earned Chaudhuri the moniker of India’s “Solar Man”.
Today, more than 100 homes and businesses in Herma are lit by an updated solar energy system, allowing villagers to be more productive while reducing their use of expensive, polluting fuels like kerosene.
“Life in the village would come to a complete standstill after sunset. But with light in our homes now, our children are studying until night,” said villager Sumoti Riyang, 33.
“Shops and business establishments remain open in the evening. We can work more. All this is generating more income for us,” she said.
In his Kolkata office, adorned with awards he has won since his first project nearly 40 years ago, Chaudhuri said he gets “great satisfaction” from seeing how solar power has changed lives in Herma, connecting residents to the modern world.
CAREER OF FIRSTS
Herma was the first tribal village in the country to gain access to solar power, and by 1989 Chaudhuri had led the installation of solar technology in nearly 40 villages across India’s northeastern states.
Four years later, he developed India’s first centralised solar power station with a distribution network on Sagar Island in the Sundarbans, home to one of the world’s largest mangrove forests, supplying 100 households through power lines.
The project was considered a breakthrough at a time when solar technology “was largely confined to laboratories and prototypes”, said Samrat Sengupta of the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a nonprofit think-tank.
By 2000, more than 400,000 people in villages around the Sundarbans national park were using solar power, through a mix of mini-grids and domestic solar-power systems.
At the time, the area had the highest per-capita consumption of solar power in the world, Chaudhuri noted.
The project earned him an Ashden Award, known as the “Green Oscars”, and the Euro Solar Award from Germany.
In 2006, it also inspired India’s then-President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to invite Chaudhuri to design a captive solar unit for the presidential palace.
“Chaudhuri’s work is a classic example of empowerment of indigenous communities through solar power,” said Arun Tripathi, director general of the National Institute of Solar Energy, an autonomous body under the renewable energy ministry.
In 2009, Chaudhuri installed the country’s first grid-connected solar plant in West Bengal’s Jamuria village, a 2-megawatt (MW) project serving 5,000 families.
This was lauded as an “environmental breakthrough” because, until then, solar power had been limited to remote areas without access to electricity, said CSE’s Sengupta.
Jamuria was the first location to use solar to replace coal power in the grid, bringing clean energy into the mainstream, he said, noting it cut the amount of coal burned locally by 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds) per hour and decreased carbon emissions.
Sengupta and others said Chaudhuri’s work helped pave the way for India’s National Solar Mission, launched in 2010.
The initiative, on which Chaudhuri consulted, had an initial target of producing 20 gigawatts (GW) of solar power by 2022.
Having already nearly doubled that ahead of time, India has set a new goal of 100GW.
But as its solar power expansion has gained pace, a growing population and increasing urbanisation have made finding enough land for big projects more difficult.
In 2014, after joining the nonprofit NB Institute for Rural Technology, which he now heads, he led construction of an experimental 10-kilowatt government-funded floating solar panel on a lake in Kolkata’s New Town.
“Designing the floating structure of the panel and anchoring it in the water body were major challenges,” he said.
That project grew into a national programme that now generates more than 1,700MW of solar power from floating panels in various coastal states around the country.
Despite its progress, India’s solar push has some limitations including high capital costs, scarcity of land and the need for sunny weather, said Partha S. Bhattacharyya, former chairman of Coal India Limited, the world’s largest coal producer which is also investing in solar energy projects.
“Thermal (coal) power is reliable and consistent, due to greater grid stability,” he added.
Chaudhuri and his team are currently experimenting with solar-powered pumps that push water up to a higher storage reservoir that can then generate hydro-electricity using micro turbines, supplying villages when needed.
“The very concept of solar power has changed from simply providing lights to controlling carbon emissions,” Chaudhuri said. “It is time that we seriously think about how to leave behind a more livable world for future generations.”
The blank look on his face … a look of hopelessness … helplessness … perplexed … it wasn’t a silent face at all. The look on his wrinkled, aged face spoke aloud, as he stood passively before the vehicle that was about to leave the slum. He had remained absolutely silent all through our interactions with the people and now his look was disturbing. It yearned for something!
We had organized food distribution for stranded migrants in one of the slums in Mumbai due to the lockdown. This slum area of migrants is not unlike other migrant living areas elsewhere in India. They live in subhuman, pathetic conditions, lacking decent housing facilities, potable water, sanitation facilities and other amenities, and are exposed to inclement weather and a hazardous atmosphere. They work for long hours, sometimes risking their health and lives, and yet are paid less than they are entitled to.
The sad eyes of this aged man seemed to express his resignation to his fate, and I wondered if it reflected the feelings of the rest of the migrant population, who also seem to have accepted their present plight helplessly. This resignation might also arise due to the insecurity, uncertainty and unpredictability of their lives.
As they lack financial and health security and have little or no social support from a caste- and class-ridden society, they are unsure of what they can or cannot control in their lives. This leads to a certain passivity, and they feel locked down deep within, unable to rise above. All that they can do is to sigh, become resigned to their “fate,” accepting life events as bound to happen, and feel helpless to change them.
In my experience, their helplessness also leads to a feeling of alienation, of being severed from the mainstream, no longer deemed worthy of love, care or support. Unable to cope with the dynamics and politics of modern-day society, they experience themselves as deficient, limited and powerless.
Even though they aren’t behind prison walls, the structures of society imprison them and they are forced to face physical and emotional captivity. Their helplessness leads them to feel exposed and vulnerable, like a bird grounded by a broken wing.
As I looked at the yearning eyes of the aged man, it seemed to me that he gazed not at the vehicle which was preparing to leave, but at the complacency of those who were more privileged than he. I think that this complacent attitude towards the plight of the migrants in India stems from ignorance about the real extent of the migrants’ situation, or the migrants’ internalized attitude of “resigning to their fate.” Are we so mired in our complacency that we have become blind to their reality? Have we etched more deeply in them the feeling that they have to be resigned to their fate?
Has our craving for power stripped them naked of their own inner strength and dignity, thus making them powerless and limited?
For me, the recent low point of this societal complacency has been the passivity of a few privileged people in India as they watched the unending trail of desperate migrants, within the city and interstate, trying to reach home to be with their loved ones. The migrants took any means — cycles, motorbikes, or container trucks. Some of them even made treacherous journeys on foot, sometimes walking hundreds of kilometers.
Social media projected photographs of women carrying their children in their arms, and their personal belongings on their heads. In such foot journeys, a few of them even lost their lives before reaching home, due to exhaustion, all because they wanted to escape dying of hunger as they tried to save themselves from the coronavirus. These are India’s nameless, faceless migrants who were unjustly denied time and transport to return home, due to the sudden and dramatic announcement of the lockdown — which was, ironically, to save lives.
But who cares for the lives of the poor?
The yearning eyes hit hard at my complacency and I realized that it is this complacency that continues to enslave them. The eyes that are “resigned to fate,” internalizing helplessness, are knocking hard at hearts filled with complacency. These eyes look into the hard-heartedness of those who wallow in the little charity that they offer and think of it as “great generosity,” but which does little to raise the self-worth and dignity of the neglected poor. The yearning eyes long for freedom and dignity, and they continue to pierce into complacent hearts, seeking a response from me and from you.