Category Archives: India

Air pollution is slashing years off the lives of billions, report finds

Smoggy conditions in New Delhi
Smoggy conditions in New Delhi. India is worst affected country, with the average citizen dying six years early. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

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.

The team said recent events had illustrated the different futures possible depending on whether governments act or not. Coronavirus lockdowns cut pollution, revealing the Himalayas to some Indian city dwellers, while wildfires in the western US caused serious pollution on the other side of the continent in New York City.

“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.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/sep/01/air-pollution-is-slashing-years-off-the-lives-of-billions-report-finds

Indian states preparing for next COVID wave focus on children

Children wearing protective masks wait to enter the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus railway station, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, April 14, 2021. REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni

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.

https://news.trust.org/item/20210819101527-ngfhj/

Death of Fr. Swamy, tribal rights defender, motivates India’s Catholic religious

People hold a banner during a July 6 prayer service for Jesuit Fr. Stan Swamy in Mumbai, India, the day after he died at a hospital.  (CNS/Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas)
People hold a banner during a July 6 prayer service for Jesuit Fr. Stan Swamy in Mumbai, India, the day after he died at a hospital. (CNS/Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas)

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 oldest Indian arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, India’s primary counterterrorism law that many call draconian.

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.”

https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/ministry/news/death-fr-swamy-tribal-rights-defender-motivates-indias-catholic-religious

India’s vaccine inequity worsens as countryside languishes

Suresh Kumar, 43, ties up the hair of his wife Pramila Devi, 36, who is suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), before taking her to a local government dispensary, at their home in Kaljikhal, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, May 23, 2021

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.

“LUCRATIVE DEALS”

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.”

https://news.trust.org/item/20210604125054-i9uxy/

India’s child victims of COVID-19

'Children who have run away or have been abandoned are instantly faced with the prospect of violence, exploitation, trafficking and abuse,' says Navin Sellaraju, CEO of Railway Children India [Photo courtesy of RCI]
‘Children who have run away or have been abandoned are instantly faced with the prospect of violence, exploitation, trafficking and abuse,’ says Navin Sellaraju, CEO of Railway Children India [Photo courtesy of RCI

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.

Progress ‘undone’

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.

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/6/3/india-covid-crisis-what-about-the

Sisters near Goa beaches offer children of sex workers brighter options

Sr. Lourenca Marques, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Holy Family of Nazareth, observes training in stitching with teacher Mary Fernandes (far right) at Asha Sadan at Baina in the western Indian state of Goa. (Lissy Maruthanakuzhy)
Sr. Lourenca Marques, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Holy Family of Nazareth, observes training in stitching with teacher Mary Fernandes (far right) at Asha Sadan at Baina in the western Indian state of Goa. (Lissy Maruthanakuzhy)

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.

https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/ministry/news/sisters-near-goa-beaches-offer-children-sex-workers-brighter-options

India’s ‘Solar Man’ lights path out of poverty with clean power

Santipada Gon Chaudhuri in his office at the NB Institute of Rural Technology, Kolkata, India, in 2019. HANDOUT/Courtesy of NBIRT

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.

FLOATING SOLAR

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 response, Chaudhuri came up with India’s first floating solar power station.

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.”

https://news.trust.org/item/20210416022435-cbymh/

Yearning eyes: the plight of the migrants in India

(Unsplash/Arturo Madrid)
(Unsplash/Arturo Madrid)

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.

https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/social-justice/column/yearning-eyes-plight-migrants-india

Indian climate activist gets bail in sedition case over farm stir

Ravi's arrest stoked criticism of repression of dissent by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government [Disha Ravi/Twitter]
Ravi’s arrest stoked criticism of repression of dissent by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government [Disha Ravi/Twitter]

A court in the Indian capital has granted bail to a 22-year-old climate activist, saying there was “scanty and sketchy evidence” of sedition in her efforts to help farmers protest in a case that has drawn global attention.

Disha Ravi was arrested in the southern city of Bengaluru on February 13 and charged with sedition for her alleged role in the creation of an online toolkit that police said contained action plans used to foment violence during the farmers’ protest.

Tens of thousands have been camped out on the outskirts of New Delhi in the bitter cold since December to protest new agricultural laws they say will hurt them and benefit of large corporations. The government says the reforms will bring new investment in the vast and antiquated produce markets.

Judge Dharmender Rana on Tuesday said there was little to hold Ravi, a founder of the local chapter of Swedish climate crusader Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, in custody any longer and criticised the authorities for detaining anyone who differed with government policy.

“Considering the scanty and sketchy evidence available on record, I do not find any palpable reasons to breach the general rule of ‘Bail’ against a 22-year-old young lady, with absolutely blemish free criminal antecedents and having firm roots in the society, and send her to jail,” Rana said in a written order.

Ravi’s arrest stoked criticism of repression of dissent by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government which has been trying for months to end the farmers’ protest.

Ravi’s lawyers had said there was nothing in the toolkit to attract the charge of sedition, which carries a life term.

“Perusal of the said ‘Toolkit’ reveals that any call for any kind of violence is conspicuously absent,” the judge said in a written order.

The protests present one of the biggest challenges to Modi’s rule. Several rounds of talks between the farmers and his government have failed, and Modi has faced criticism for using heavy handed tactics to curb the movement.

Police had alleged that the toolkit was authored by Ravi and two others and had the backing of supporters of a Canadian-based group called the Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF).

They also said Ravi had shared the toolkit with Thunberg, who is one of several international celebrities who have lent public support to the farmers’ cause.

The judge said he did not find Ravi’s link to the toolkit or PJF objectionable.

“We didn’t assemble the toolkit in question, although links to our materials were included in that document,” PJF founder Mo Dhaliwal told the Reuters news agency.

Dhaliwal also countered the police’s claim that the PJF was a group which held separatist views.

“We have only created space for open debate and dialogue,” he said, alleging it was under fire because Modi’s government was “fostering a culture of fear where dissent is equated with sedition”.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/24/indian-climate-activist-gets-bail-in-sedition-case-over-farm-stir

Holy Spirit sister who survived COVID-19 donates plasma to save others

Holy Spirit Sr. Sneha Joseph donates her plasma at the government-managed Nair Hospital in Mumbai, capital of the western Indian state Maharashtra. (Provided photo)
Holy Spirit Sr. Sneha Joseph donates her plasma at the government-managed Nair Hospital in Mumbai, capital of the western Indian state Maharashtra. (Provided photo

MUMBAI, INDIA — Though she is a hospital administrator and nurse in western India who once trained nurses in the South Sudan during ethnic fighting, a Catholic nun’s worst fear about getting COVID-19 was going on a ventilator.

“I was certain that once I was put on the ventilator I would not survive. I would visualize how I was going to die,” said Holy Spirit Sr. Sneha Joseph, remembering a harrowing incident waking up after her appendectomy years earlier, intubated and gasping for breath.

But when she caught the virus, she not only escaped the ventilator, she survived after 18 days of treatment and ended up donating convalescent plasma to try to save the lives of coronavirus patients. “There was an inner voice that urged me to donate plasma,” she said.

Joseph was honored Nov. 1, 2020, as a COVID-19 Warrior by the governor of Maharashtra state at his residence in Mumbai, the state capital.

“I am proud of you. Thank you for your selfless service to society,” Gov. Bhagat Singh Koshyari told Joseph while presenting the member of the Missionary Sisters, Servants of the Holy Spirit a letter recognizing her “exemplary service.”

The governor, who is the Indian president’s representative in the state, pointed out that Joseph has inspired many COVID-19 survivors to donate blood to treat other patients.

The Warrior award program was organized by Spandan (heartbeat) Arts, a local nongovernmental organization, along with Ashish Shelar, a legislator in the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Joseph donated her blood for the fifth time Dec. 9, in what news reports called a first for a female donor. “I still want to donate [blood], however, doctors advised me to wait,” the 57-year-old nun told Global Sisters Report in November after her fourth donation.

Joseph, who has a master’s degree in nursing, is currently the chief executive officer of the Holy Spirit Hospital, a multispecialty tertiary care institution her congregation manages at Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai.

The nun donates plasma only to poor COVID-19 patients in Nair Hospital and Medical College, a government-managed institution in Mumbai.

Ramesh S. Waghmare, a doctor and associate professor of the blood bank at Nair Hospital who facilitated Joseph’s blood donation, defines plasma therapy as a medical procedure that uses the blood of a recovered patient to create antibodies in those infected.

As part of the procedure, plasma, the fluid part of blood containing antibodies, is separated and transfused into a COVID-19 patient’s body. “This procedure has not been officially approved as an effective measure to treat COVID-19 patients. But it has shown positive results in our hospital,” Waghmare told GSR over the phone.

The doctor said his hospital conducts “guided plasma therapy” on COVID-19 victims with convalescent plasma from recovered patients such as Joseph as part of a clinical trial.

“We transfuse two units of 200 milliliters [6.76 ounces] each on a patient in two successive days and our results so far have been successful,” Waghmare explained.

The doctor lauded Joseph for donating plasma multiple times when other survivors have been reluctant to support the trial even once.

The Catholic nun, he added, has expressed willingness to assist them in the trial by giving her plasma unconditionally. “We are all indebted to her,” he said.

Joseph, however, believes that it was God’s plan to let her contract the disease so that she could gain new insights into her religious life and her desire to serve impoverished people.

She had her fears when she became ill, as the disease is so new.

“When I knew that I had contracted the virus, I was scared and thought my end had come,” Joseph recalled.

The nun said she had mentally prepared to die, if that was God’s will. She battled for life in the hospital for 18 days in May. A week after recovery, she was back on duty.

“Now I realize that God had a special purpose in letting me contract COVID-19. Initially, I was disappointed, as people keep away from COVID-19 patients even after they are healed,” she said.

Ursulines of Mary Immaculate Sr. Beena Devassia Madhavath, who heads the Sister Doctors Forum in India, appreciates Joseph’s “courage and generosity.”

Many people have fears and misconceptions about donating plasma, but Joseph had no problem, says Madhavath, who is also the medical superintendent of Mumbai’s Holy Family Hospital. “It is really a humanitarian work,” she told GSR.

Madhavath points out that not everyone can donate plasma. “A woman is eligible only if she has not conceived. Pregnancy leads to cross-reactive antibodies that can cause harm,” she said. (Tests used in Western nations to determine antibody safety in women are largely unavailable in India.)

“It takes at least three hours for donating the blood, and it needs a lot of courage and commitment,” the doctor nun explained. What she admires about Joseph is that the Holy Spirit nun could “spare so much time from her hectic work schedule in her hospital where she does double jobs as an administrator and a nurse.”

Madhavath said all sisters in the country are “really proud that one of us has done a marvelous work for the humanity.”

Joseph credits her religious vocation for paving the way. “If I was not a nun, I would not have been able to donate my plasma. I believe my religious vocation has a special purpose,” she said.

Even though she had heard about plasma therapy, she had no idea how to go about it. One of her colleagues, Pravin Nair, encouraged her to donate.

Joseph fulfills all requirements of a plasma donor. “Generally, one needs an antibody [level] greater than three for donating plasma, but mine was greater than 10,” she said. “My serum protein level also was on the higher side, a good indication for donation.”

Nair hails Joseph as a self-driven person who is committed to helping the poor. “When I informed her about the opportunity and importance of donating plasma, she identified the government hospital and started donation,” said Nair, the head of the microbiology department and infection control at Holy Spirit Hospital.

He added that Joseph always maintains that her mission in life is to serve others, especially poor people in a time of pandemic. She ignored offers from private hospitals and chose the government hospital since poorer patients flock there, he explained.

Some studies say plasma therapy is not useful to treat COVID-19, Nair said, but “treating a virus with antibodies is an effective mechanism in medical science and we believe plasma therapy is useful to treat pandemic virus.”

Another admirer of Joseph is Auxiliary Bishop Allwyn D’Silva of Bombay. “She had a very bad attack and suffered a lot,” said the prelate, who shot a video of the sister donating plasma to encourage others to follow her example.

“It is very rare for a woman to take such a step, but she realized the pain and suffering of COVID-19 patents and that helped her walk the extra mile,” D’Silva told GSR.

The prelate said he has found Joseph to be “a very humble” person. “She does it not for any fame,” he said.

Many others work in Catholic hospitals, but Joseph has become an example not only for Christians but others, too, D’Silva said. “Her life gives us a clear message: What we get, we need to give back.”

Joseph, the youngest among six children in a Catholic family of Kerala, a southwestern Indian state, wonders why her donations have drawn so much attention.

“As a child I had a passion to serve the poor and I grabbed the opportunity to give my plasma for their treatment,” she said. “I want to help only the poor who will not be able to pay for the treatment.”

https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/coronavirus/news/holy-spirit-sister-who-survived-covid-19-donates-plasma-save-others