Category Archives: India

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

‘Madman’ digs for decades to bring water to dry Indian village

Laungi Bhuiya is now being hailed as the 'Water Man' and 'River Man' [Courtesy of Jai Prakash/Al Jazeera]
Laungi Bhuiya is now being hailed as the ‘Water Man’ and ‘River Man’ [Courtesy of Jai Prakash/Al Jazeera]

Gaya, Bihar – For nearly 30 years, Ramrati Devi had called her husband Laungi Bhuiya “mad” and tried everything, even denying him food, to get him to focus more on supporting their children and less on what seemed like an impossible dream.

The other villagers in Kothilwa, a parched and poor hamlet in a remote corner of India’s eastern state of Bihar, dismissed Bhuiya when he said he would bring water to them one day.

Kothilwa is about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Gaya, the closest major city, and is home to nearly 750 people – most of them Dalits – who live in mud huts.

Dalits, formerly referred to as the “untouchables”, fall at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy and have historically faced social marginalisation and discrimination.

A narrow unpaved road off a highway is the only way to reach Kothilwa, a village tucked into a barren landscape, rocks dotting its red earth, on which nothing except maize and some hardy pulses that need little water grew.

Bhuiya, who owns a small piece of land, always reckoned that if he could dig a canal to redirect the streams running up in the hills to his village – which only had a couple of wells for drinking water that were not enough for irrigation – he and others would be able to grow vegetables and wheat and support themselves.

Therefore, oblivious to his wife’s reprimands and the villagers’ taunts, Bhuiya, now 70, would head up into the nearby Bangetha Hills to dig.

He says he kept at it for nearly three decades, with rudimentary tools and a dogged determination.

“I was always angry with him for not caring about the children. There was never any money, never enough food,” his wife Devi told Al Jazeera.

Soon, Bhuiya came to be known in the village as the “madman” possessed by a dream of bringing water to the village. His son Brahmdeo said the family even took him to the village healers to exorcise him. Three of his four sons had migrated to other cities to find work.

But a determined Bhuiya kept digging. He knew water from the monsoon rains filled the many streams in the Bangetha Hills and that they could be diverted to the village.

For years, Bhuiya headed out for the hills to dig every day – a feat reminiscent of the epic efforts of Dashrath Manjhi, another Dalit from Gaya, decades ago.

After 22 years of cutting through Gaya’s Gehlour Hills using only a hammer and chisel, Manjhi in 1982 shortened the distance between his village and the nearest town from 55 to 15 kilometres (from 34 to 9 miles).

Manjhi’s feat earned him the sobriquet “Mountain Man”. The government released a postage stamp featuring him and Bollywood produced a biopic about him in 2016.

“I had heard about him and I thought if he can do it, why can’t I?” Bhuiya told Al Jazeera. “They all thought I was mad.”

‘We used to think he is possessed’

Last month, local journalist Jai Prakash had gone to the village to cover a story about the villagers building their own road to the village when Bhuiya came up to him and asked if he could show him a canal he had dug.

“He had dug a minor canal for irrigation. He said it took him nearly 30 years, so we went on my motorcycle to see it,” Prakash told Al Jazeera.

“In the monsoons, the water had come to the little dam the water department had constructed last year… Laungi Dam.”

As soon as Prakash’s story was published in a local Hindi newspaper on September 3, Kothilwa became a hotspot as journalists, political leaders, social workers and activists began flocking to the village to meet Bhuiya.

Bhuiya was able to dig a canal 3km (1.86 miles) long but hadn’t been able to bring it all the way uphill to Kothilwa, and was forced to stop digging a kilometre away from the village.

As news of his efforts spread, Bihar state’s Water Minister Sanjay Jha came to know about it and ordered the extension of the canal till Bhuiya’s village.

The day Al Jazeera visited Kothilwa, a man from a neighbouring village had walked into Bhuiya’s courtyard and was making a speech about the failures of the government.

A placard with an enlarged image of a cheque for 100,000 rupees ($1,365) presented to him by Mankind Pharma, an Indian pharmaceutical company, hung outside the door of his house.

On the same day, Bihar’s former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi visited the village and promised Bhuiya he would be recognised by the Indian president. Villagers present asked Manjhi for a hospital and a road to be built and named after Bhuiya.

That evening, Bhuyia, resplendent in a white kurta and dhoti with flowers in his hand, went to an auto showroom in Gaya where a tractor decorated gaily with balloons stood waiting for him.

It was a gift from Anand Mahindra, chairman of the auto giant Mahindra Group, who had heard through a local journalist’s tweets that Bhuiya was now dreaming of owning a tractor after having dug the irrigation canal.

“We used to think he is possessed,” his son Brahmdeo said.  “Things have changed now. We have some money we got because of his work.”

Bramhdeo says he now wants a fan, and maybe some clothes and good food too.

Meanwhile, Bhuiya’s wife Ramrati Devi watched as her husband, now being hailed as the “Water Man” and “River Man”, had been whisked away by a crowd of cheering villagers.

They had a good reason to be happy. This year, the village of Kothilwa was able to grow wheat.

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/30/mad-man-digs-for-20-years-to-make-canal-in-remote-india-village

Girls from India’s villages ‘break gender barrier’ with football

Thanks to an initiative by local NGO MJAS, football has helped girls from Ajmer district in Rajasthan state overcome societal taboos [Valay Singh/Al Jazeera]
Thanks to an initiative by local NGO MJAS, football has helped girls from Ajmer district in Rajasthan state overcome societal taboos [Valay Singh/Al Jazeera]

Ajmer, India – In a small football ground outside a remote village in India’s Rajasthan state, dozens of girls are busy practising, with shouts for passes ringing out as the sun set behind the small hills.

It was unheard of that girls from Hasiyawas and neighbouring villages in Ajmer district, about 400km (248 miles) from India’s capital, New Delhi, would play outdoor sports. The region is known for widespread child marriages and its lack of public space for women.

According to UNICEF, there are 223 million child brides in India, with nearly 15 million of them in the western state of Rajasthan.

Now, an initiative by a local NGO is using football to help girls from Ajmer overcome social taboos and give them a chance to strive for their dreams.

The Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti (MJAS), which loosely translates to Women’s Rights Committee, introduced football to female pupils in four villages in Ajmer district with the aim of empowering them. Since 2016, the Football for Girls programme has trained more than 400 girls in the four villages.

“We wanted to use sports and particularly football because it is considered a man’s sport, to break the gender barrier,” Indira Pancholi of MJAS told Al Jazeera.

“Football clubs have also helped us curb child marriage in these communities because girls became aware of their rights through our workshops. Earlier, they would have just went along if their parents tried to marry them but not now, they have the strength to say no.”

While girls are married off as children, they are sent to the husband’s house – in a ritual known as “gauna” – only when they reach the legal age for marriage, which is 18 for women and 21 for men.

According to government data, at least half of all child marriages in Ajmer took place in its villages.

About 30km (18 miles) from Ajmer, in Hasiyawas village, Mamata Gujjar, 16, recalls how it was tough to convince her parents to let her play football. “My father refused, saying it is a boy’s game, and he won’t let me wear shorts. I said, ‘All right, let me play in salwar kameez [a long tunic-like shirt and baggy trousers] then’,” Mamata told Al Jazeera.

Hasiyawas is a small village of about 150 families, most of them belonging to the Gujjar community, an agricultural and pastoral community with poor socio-economic conditions. The village is also home to a few Dalit families, who are at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, once known as “untouchables”. Football, a contact sport, is now helping to bridge age-old social distancing among various caste groups.

After the match was over, 18-year old Suman Gujjar from Hasiyawas told Al Jazeera that, “earlier Dalits, especially women, were not allowed to sit in front of Gujjars, if they did sit, it was on the floor. Till I joined the football club I too thought that we were of ‘higher birth’ and Dalits were unclean and ‘lower’. I have realised how wrong I was because of the workshops I attended during training.” This year, Suman is among a handful of girls to gain entrance to college and will pursue humanities at a government college in Ajmer.

Nisha Parihar, who joined the football club in nearby Chachiyawas village four years ago, says the boys of her village objected to girls playing football and tried to disrupt their matches and pass offensive comments.

“They would puncture the ball, occupy the ground and refuse to make space for us to play. We had to fight them off sometimes. Finally, we complained to the village council who then asked boys to play at a separate time,” the 13-year-old said, with a smile which seemed to reflect pride.

Sapna, 17, the captain of the team, echoed her friend’s sentiments. “Till we started playing, boys were never seen in the sports field. Just to prevent us from playing, they too started coming to the field,” she said evoking giggles from other girls.

Before football entered their lives, like most girls in rural Rajasthan and many other states of India, their daily routine was restricted to cooking, cleaning, milking cattle and other housework.

“We are mostly at home doing household chores and sometimes watch TV. But boys are free to stay out and go wherever they want. We didn’t have the courage to even ask our parents to let us go to play. We couldn’t think we could do things boys do,” said Monica Gujjar, a striker from Hasiyawas.

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/2/rajasthan-football-story

Indian nuns aid migrant laborers stranded on way home during lockdown

Mothers and children wait at Kaushambi Bus Terminal on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border to go to their villages in eastern India hundreds of kilometers away. (Jessy Joseph)

New Delhi — Sr. Sujata Jena could not sleep after seeing a picture of a young girl with a heavy load on her head in a WhatsApp message. “Her stained face, wet with tears, haunted me,” the member of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary told Global Sisters Report.

The photo was being circulated to illustrate the plight of hundreds of thousands of people who hit India’s highways following a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

As Jena saw on social media platforms pictures and videos from around India, the 38-year-old lawyer and nun set out to help migrants reach home. One video clip showed 10 workers crammed into a room in Kerala, a southwestern Indian state. The men said their employer had locked them up and that they desperately needed help to reach their villages in Odisha, more than 1,000 miles northeast.

As the lockdown confined her to her convent in the Odisha capital of Bhubaneswar, Jena on May 17 joined a social media network that helps the stranded migrants.

By June 24, more than 300 migrants, including the 10, stranded in southern Indian states reached their native villages in states such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal in eastern India, thanks to Jena’s efforts.

Jena is among hundreds of Catholic nuns who are on the front lines as the church reaches out to migrant laborers affected by the initial 21-day lockdown Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed on India’s 1.3 billion people from midnight of March 25 with only four hours’ notice.

The lockdown, considered the world’s largest and toughest attempt to contain the pandemic, has been extended five times with varying degrees of relaxation until July 31.

The lockdown suddenly rendered jobless millions of migrant laborers in cities.

“As they lost the job, they had no place to stay, no income and no security,” says Salesian Fr. Joe Mannath, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India, the association of men and women religious major superiors in the country.

As the lockdown halted India’s public transport system, migrant laborers in cities swarmed highways and roads within a few days. Most walked and some cycled to their native villages, hundreds of miles away.

Mannath says the fear of starvation and contracting the coronavirus led to a “chaotic exodus” of workers from cities.

Church groups are among those trying to help these workers.

On June 6, Caritas India, the Indian bishops’ aid agency, informed a webinar that the church reached more than 11 million people during the lockdown period, including many migrant workers.

Mannath, who coordinates India’s more than 130,000 religious, including nearly 100,000 women, claims the bulk of that service was carried out by the religious.

https://www.globalsistersreport.org/news/coronavirus/news/indian-nuns-aid-migrant-laborers-stranded-way-home-during-lockdown