Demonetisation and mid-day meal

On the 8th day after de-monetisation, students of Thummalapalli Village Upper Primary School, were served rice cooked with turmeric and salt with a handful of peanuts. The meal served to school children did not have any curry or the regular watery dal with a few vegetables floating in it or egg which is served thrice a week.

Thummalapalli is a small village with 300 households and their main source of income is agriculture. This village is located 70 km from Hyderabad in Marpalle Mandal of the newly formed Vikarabad district of Telangana state. The village has one Upper Primary School (U-DISE Code: 36060100901) with 91 students and offers classes from class 1 to 7.

Jangam Sandhya, studying in 4th class says she likes the Mid Day meal when they serve an egg. “Other days, it is just Rice and Dal. I don’t like it that much. How can I eat Rice and dal every day? Before the festival, they used to serve us tomato curry on some days. Not anymore.”

Sandhya’s cousin Sindhuja adds, “I carry a tiffin box from home with curry made by my mother. I eat my curry with the rice they serve at the school. Now they stopped giving us fruits. I don’t remember when they stopped. It was a long time back. Sometimes we get an egg. Today (24th Nov 2016) we got Rice and Dal.”

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Child in a playful mood while eating plain rice without any Dal or vegetables at UPS Thummalapalli on 16th Nov 2016

Paasula Arvind studying in 4th class, aged 9 yrs reads out the menu written outside the classroom wall, but is a bit confused when he had to describe the midday meal. “It is all watery. The Pappu Chaaru (dal) is very watery now. Yesterday they served us Taalimpu Annam (Rice with mustard and cumin seeds seasoning). They did not give us an egg today. Since I think 20 days we did not get any eggs.  But we got one egg after Diwali. Earlier we used to get 2 eggs per week. Now the midday meal is just rice. No, they stopped giving vegetable curries. We eat what they give.  I like it if they give us eggs, fruits, vegetable curry and on Tuesdays Pulihora (Tamarind Rice) and Chaaru. They stopped all these since the school reopened after the festival. We have 17 students in our class.”

Pasuvula Naveen is in 5th class and his family migrated back to the village as they lost their jobs in Hyderabad after bifurcation of AP and Telangana states. He says “Mastu rojulayyindi guddu petti…. It’s been several days since we got an egg. No, they didn’t give. No, fruits either. We get just dal with rice but very watery. I like bananas. They stopped giving bananas. After Deepavali, we got egg only once.”

According to the School Management Committee Chairman, Mr. Jangam Sangameshwar, the effects of de-monetisation were very brutal in this small village of 300 families dependent on agriculture and is directly affecting the children whose Mid Day meal was reduced to plain rice without any vegetables or eggs. 91 students are enrolled in the Upper Primary School (UPS).

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Children eating plain rice which is cooked with turmeric at UPS Thummalapalli on 16th Nov 2016

Sangameshwar, the school SMC chairman says, “Telangana state government supplies rice to the school, but the other essentials like dal, oil, salt, masalas are purchased from the local shop on credit and vegetables are bought from the village market using cash. As per the revised cooking cost in the year 2015-16, the allocated budget is Rs. 4.13 and Rs. 6.18 per child per day for primary and upper primary students respectively. Eggs are procured for Rs. 3.50 per egg and are served thrice a week. But since a week, due to the recent cash crunch, the midday meal cooks Sangamma and Chandramma were unable to buy any vegetables with the little cash they had or procure vegetables on credit from the village market. So they are serving just the cooked rice to children without any vegetables. They don’t have any cash to buy vegetables for the midday meal at school. We don’t know when the situation will be normal again.”

Cook Chandramma has more woes to add.

We normally don’t get our bills paid or costs reimbursed in time, for serving Midday meals, sometimes with delays extending to 3-4 months at a stretch.  Once the old payments are cleared, we use the monies to clear old loans which we have with traders and keep some cash on us for buying vegetables on daily basis. This is a normal routine of rotating cash for daily purchases. But as we get credit from the local shop for buying dal, oil and masalas, we settle payments after our bills are cleared. But cash is the only way I can pay for getting vegetables from the village market. And now my 500 and 1000 rupee notes are not accepted by the vegetable vendors, which is the reason we cannot serve vegetables to children.  We normally buy dal, oil and masalas twice a month and stock up and buy vegetables on daily basis. But now we have only a few things left in the kitchen except rice and some dal. We know without vegetables, we cannot serve a nutritious meal to children. We cannot go on spending our limited cash, as we are not sure how soon the old bills will be cleared. Chief Minister KCR announced that all government employees will get half the salary1 in December as he says there is no money with the government. But for buying vegetables we have to use cash. We cannot but serve just rice to the children. I went to the bank which is located 6 kms away, to get my 500 rupee notes exchanged on the first day, but there was a long queue of people from the neighbouring villages and after waiting till 2pm, the bank ran out of cash. I had to return empty-handed. I cannot go every day leaving work to stand in the queue, so I am borrowing essentials from the local shop for my family.”

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Pasula Prem Kumar, father of two and a cotton farmer, has a different story to tell.

My younger son Akhilesh (4 yrs) goes to the Aanganwadi centre and elder son Aravind (8 yrs) studying in 4th class at the Upper Primary School in the village. I am aware that the midday meal funds are released once in 3 months and cooks get the supplies on credit from the shop. But since a week the regular watery dal and tomato curry disappeared. There were no eggs served as the van which supplies to Aanganwadi and school did not come this week. Today’s (16th Nov 2016) meal was only rice with turmeric and salt. I am worried that my sons are not getting nutritious food at school, and I cannot provide it myself. I harvested cotton after borrowing Rs. 74,000 at 3% interest per month from the moneylender, including Rs. 20,000, which I borrowed on 1st November, towards harvesting and transportation expenses for selling my produce. I finished harvesting on 9th November, and did not pay wages to the labourers who picked cotton as all the cash I have is in Rs. 500 note denominations. After our Prime Minister Modi announced that Rs. 500 notes were useless, I deposited the cash in my account at Grameena Bank in Patloor village. The wholesale buyer Sudarshan Reddy said he cannot pay me cash as his buyer is paying him by cheque. Even if I accept cheque from Sudarshan Reddy, I cannot pay the labourers’ wages by cheque. There was a man at the market yard who offered me 4 notes of Rs. 100 denominations in exchange of each Rs. 500 note. I saw many other small farmers are exchanging old notes with him. I managed to draw Rs. 4,000 from the bank, but they gave me 2 currency notes in Rs. 2000 denomination. I don’t know how and where to spend it as no one has the change now”

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Meal served under Mid-day meal scheme at Govt. UPS Thummalapalli village on 16th Nov 2016

The school Head Master Dayanagari Srikanth Kumar says that the payments for Mid Day meal are pending for 2 months. “This is a routine. Last payment that was cleared was for August bill for Rs.6,000. Now we have submitted bills for September and October (Rs.6,600 & Rs. 5,900) to Mandal Education Officer (MEO) and the bills are verified by the  Mallesham, Cluster Resource Person who is in-charge for 8 schools in Marpalle Mandal. We don’t know when these payments will come. We have stocked up Sanna Biyyam (fine quality rice) given by the state government. But the cook has to purchase vegetables and eggs twice a week, which is not happening due to uncleared bills and now it is getting worse due to the cash problem. We did not get school uniforms yet. We finished half the academic year already.” 

Cluster Resource Person (CRP) Parigi Mallesham explains the procedure for getting the payments. “The Head Master of the school normally prepares the expense statement every month and submits to Mandal Education Officer (MEO). MEO clears it. If any discrepancy the CRPs are instructed to verify the details by visiting the schools in person. This month the situation is severe as the State Treasury Officer said all the accounts are frozen after demonetisation. So, the payments are pending not just for Thummalapalli UPS but 7 other schools in Marpalle Mandal. Yes, the salary of cook cum helper is Rs. 1,000 per month. It is difficult for them to manage with such a low salary and wait for uncleared payments for months. But I cannot do much as the account is frozen until further notice. I don’t know. Things may move after a week or two.”

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Upper Primary School, Bilkal Village, Marpalle Mandal, Vikarabad District, Telangana

Another Upper Primary School in the neighbouring village Bilkal, served plain cooked rice with  Pacchi Pulusu on 16th Nov 2016.  Pacchi Pulusu is a Telangana dish made of tamarind water with a few chopped onions floating around. P. Ramulu, Head Master of Bilkal confirmed that as per the Mid Day Meal menu, children are supposed to get 3 eggs per week, but are served only two. “It is a routine that G. Anansuya, our cook borrows Rs.1000 or 500 from the teaching staff to purchase vegetables and eggs and get pulses on credit from the village kirana shop. Each egg costs us Rs. 4 sometimes even Rs. 5. We have 61 students in our school, that will be about Rs. 750 just for purchasing eggs each week. Had this been a bigger school, we could have bargained on the prices. So, we are serving eggs twice a week. As the old payments are pending for 3 months, the cooks already borrowed money on interest. They are waiting for the bills to be cleared.  Now even we are unable to spare cash for eggs and vegetables as the old currency notes are not legal tender. I  have a Rs. 2000 note, but no one in this village is ready to give me change. We are already facing problems. Instead of giving one egg each, our cook is now making scrambled eggs and started serving in small quantities to children just to follow the midday meal menu. I know it is not enough. But we are helpless. We informed our Mandal Education Officer about the situation, but he too seems clueless and did not offer any solution. I hope this is resolved soon.”

Zilla Parishad High School, Polumala Village, Maddirala Mandal, Suryapet District, Telangana (110 students)

  1. Anusha, a student of class 10, was very vocal about the diminishing quality of the Midday meal served in her school. “We found worms in the rice which is served and all of us complained to our Head Master Papaiah Sir. He asked us to throw away the food. This happened twice this week. The Pachhi Pulusu is just tamarind water. Now they are not even adding onions to it. How can we eat rice with Pachhi Pulusu or Chaaru every day? There is no taste. They are giving us an egg only once a week. We will consider ourselves lucky if they give us eggs twice a week. Since the past 10 days, the quality is even worse. I don’t know why.”

Sravani, another class 10 student did not find any difference in the quality of midday meal at the school. “They didn’t serve egg this week. We are okay with the Pachhi Pulusu and Rice. Today they gave us Bhendi curry. We don’t want to complain as the meal is given for free. Sometimes they serve Dal, Tomato curry and Potato curry. But not always.”

Akula Ailaiah, School Management Committee (SMC) Chairman and President of Mandal SMC committee confirms that the quality of midday meal is deteriorating every day. “I offered Rs. 10,000 to the cook to buy some vegetables and eggs, but it is hardly enough for a couple of days. I am a small farmer with 2 acres of land. Even if I want to help, I cannot go on lending money like this every day. As per record, they say they are serving 2 eggs per week, but we know this is not true. We cannot blame the cooks as they did not get paid for the past 4 months. The traders are now refusing to extend credit to the cooks unless they clear old bills, which is another problem. I will be meeting the Head Master tomorrow and will share more details.”

Zilla Parishad High School, Venkipalli Village, Nutankal Mandal, Suryapet District, Telangana (99 students)

According to Dhanamma, Children’s Rights volunteer working for MV Foundation who interacts with students on a daily basis conducting Gender Equality classes, things are the same. “Yes, all the cooks have the problem of unpaid bills. But here in this school, the Head Master Sivaiah Sir lent Rs.7,000 to the cook Palamur Rajitha to ensure that there is no compromise in the quality of the meal served to the children. He assured the cooks to ask for more money if needed. This is due to the inspection by District Education Officer. Today (18th Oct 2016) they served Bhendi curry and Dal as per menu. The bills have been pending for the past 3 months for this school. I spoke to the children and they are unaware of the situation.”

Nutankal Zilla Parishad High School, Nutankal Mandal, Suryapet District, Telangana (632 students)

This school has students coming from over 20 villages across the mandal including students from Government Girl’s Hostel, SC and BC Boys Hostels totalling to 632 children from class 1 to Class 10. Head Master Damera Srinivas confirms that the daily expenses can be anything between Rs.4,500 to Rs. 5,000 for procuring vegetables and provisions for the Mid Day meal. “We have not received payments for the past 4 months and the debt is running up to Rs. 6 lakhs. The last contractor who employed cooks for midday meal left us in the lurch due to the unpaid bills. We found another person who took the contract. But who will work without getting paid? Especially when they know they will be buried in debt amounting to lakhs of rupees. This is nothing new. In April and May during summer vacation another contractor served midday meals to over 100 students and is still waiting for his payment. Sending letters to MEO is futile as they too don’t have a clue when the payments will be released. We are ensuring that children get eggs at least twice a week. But I am not sure how long we will be able to continue like this. Bearing expenses of Rs. 5,000 per day is not possible for anyone. Merchants in the villages are refusing to give provisions on credit until we clear the old bills.  This is the only school that offers English Medium so parents prefer sending their children to this school. It is painful for me to see that we cannot afford to offer a nutritious lunch for our children. Added to this the currency crunch hit us hard. We are not sure how long we can continue with this.”

Zilla Parishad High School, Aeypore Village, Atmakur Mandal, Suryapet District, Telangana (290 students)

Lalitha, another Child Rights volunteer working for MV Foundation shares another story about Mid Day meal served at ZPHS Aeypore Village. “The school needs 300 eggs which cost Rs.1,500 each time. For a week the cooks have to shell out Rs. 4,500 just for eggs. After 8th November their old Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes are not accepted by shops. They managed to exchange the old currency with new Rs. 2,000 notes. The traders are asking to buy provisions for the whole amount as they don’t have change for the new Rs.2,000 currency note. The Head Master is very adamant that the menu should be followed strictly as the DEO and District Collector will be coming for an inspection. He is aware of the problem but insisted on following the menu. The cooks are facing a problem from both sides. Children complained about the quality of food several times. To limit consumption of Dal the cooks are adding more chilli powder. This is affecting the children very much. We don’t even know who is to blame. We don’t know how we can survive like this for the next 50 days. Cooks are waiting for the last 4 months payments which are still pending. Ironically this village is adopted by our Education Minister Guntakandla Jagadish Reddy and yet the children are facing problems.”

Telangana State Government is supplying Super Fine variety of Rice for MDM scheme additionally bearing an amount of Rs.97.72 crores per annum approximately. Rice is the only stock the schools have. Rest of the provisions are procured from outside and bills submitted at the end of the month. 29,019 primary and upper primary level schools are covered in the scheme. The total budget of Rs. 32,505.89 lakhs is shared at 60:40 by central and state governments for students till class 8. In addition to this Telangana state government extended midday meals to 9th and 10th class students at its own expense serving a total of  20,13,000 children at government schools in the state.

However the unpaid bills running into lakhs of rupees is a definite burden on the cooks in rural Telangana who are mostly single widowed women,  looking for a livelihood. The laid-back attitude of the state government in clearing the pending bills is already stressing out the cooks and adding to it the recent cash crunch due to demonetization drove several people involved in the midday meal program over the edge. With the rising costs of vegetables and eggs, many of them are feeling helpless in serving a basic meal to the children. School Management Committees and Civil Society Organisations like Child Rights Protection Forum sent several petitions to the state government to clear the pending bills and increase the budget for the program but in vain. Many schools are unsure how they could continue serving meals under the current circumstances till the end of November, leave alone 50 days of so-called inconvenience. 

  1. Telangana requires Rs 2,500 crore per month to pay salaries and pensions and Rs 1,100 crore to pay interest on loans. Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao on Saturday pressed the panic button regarding the adverse financial condition of the state government on account of demonetisation. http://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/131116/telangana-government-staff-may-get-half-pay-in-december.html

Reference material about midday meal in Telangana: http://mdm.nic.in/Files/Workshop/Regional-Workshops/2015-16/Hyderabad/Presentations/Telangana/Telengala.pdf

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Rice Bucket Challenge

As an Indian, before I make a point I am compelled to tell a story. Better be it from Mahabharata the greatest epic from my country. Okay, here it is… the story is about who is more generous among the two brothers, Arjuna and Karna. And the judge is none other than Lord Krishna.

Arjuna once asked Krishna while walking on the seashore close to sunset time, “Krishna, giving away things is pretty easy, why is Karna referred to as ‘Daana Karna’ (The charitable one)? Anyone can do that. I can do that too”. Hearing this Krishna converted the sand dunes on the seashore to gold and asked Arjuna to distribute all the gold dunes before sunset. Arjuna took a big pan and started distributing the gold to the poor. As the sun was setting he was exhausted, and he couldn’t finish distributing all the gold, there was too much to give and too little time. He understood that there is no way he can finish giving away all that gold on the seashore by dusk and look helplessly at Krishna.  Now Krishna calls Karna and asks him to help him distribute the gold to the poor. Karna stands there and points to gold dunes to each person waiting for alms and says “This one is yours, that one is yours…” and he distributes all the gold in no time.

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Manju Latha Kalanidhi, founder of Rice Bucket Challenge

The moral of the story as my mother says is ‘Charity is easy, but not when you try to hog the limelight. Same goes with starting a revolution to trigger a positive change. You need not be the front-runner all the time. A good leader always delegates’.

When I first heard about #IceBucketChallenge, for the first time in 2014, I smirked and thought it was an absolutely foolish idea to waste so much water, especially when you know that several people are dying of thirst. Some of my wise friends too shared the same notion and yet diplomatically donated money for the cause instead of wasting water. There were others who ended up saving a hundred bucks and wasting a bucket full of water. Then a few weeks later I heard about the #RiceBucketChallenge and quickly concluded that why would anyone want to pour a bucket full of rice grains on them. I was wrong.

That was the time I was recovering from the ridiculous outcome of Indian elections, where people of India were giving the winning politicians a milk bath and worshipping them as Gods months after the results. Yeah, that is true. We Indians do indulge in such crazy antics to show our love and dedication to real life idols, who are mostly politicians or film stars. We do this in full awareness of the fact that half of our nation’s children are malnourished. In India hero worship won’t go away in days, it takes months sometimes years altogether and we work very hard to stay in such comatose state. I will reserve my thoughts on Indian hypocrisy for later.  For now, let us stay with my twisted perception about Rice Bucket Challenge.  I smirked more without even bothering to read what it is all about and forgot about it.  I was terribly wrong.

A few months later I was attending a workshop for journalists organized by United States consulate and happened to meet Manju Latha Kalanidhi, who was my fellow participant and the innovator of the Rice Bucket Challenge. That’s when I started following her work on social media to see the massive change she triggered by adding one additional letter “R” to the much talked about Ice Bucket Challenge. I couldn’t help appreciating her wisdom. She calls it a Desi Challenge for Desi Needs. Asks everyone to cook or buy one bucket of Rice / Biryani and feed the needy and then tag #RiceBucketChallenge and challenge your friends.

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Rice Bucket Challenge kicked off in the Philippines

I followed the Rice Bucket Challenge campaign closely and critically to see how she shared details. The critic in me always questioned ‘what is in it for her?’ I saw a lot of people irrespective of their social standing taking up the challenge, donating rice to the needy and posting pictures on Facebook with the hashtag Rice Bucket Challenge. Manju Latha is nowhere seen in those pictures. Total strangers from all across the world started donating rice to the needy. Manju as I fondly call her now,  created the joy of giving and sharing in people.  Rice Bucket Challenge reached South Asian countries and is still spreading to other continents as well.

As I recall the story of Karna who lived up to his title ‘The charitable one’, by showing off their prowess in donating gold dunes in a jiffy, I could draw similarities with the campaign Manju has created which now I appreciate wholeheartedly and apologise for snubbing the idea when I heard about it first.  And am so glad that my perception about the campaign was wrong.  Manju is a true leader who did not care to be the frontrunner of the impressive campaign and yet leading it in her own way by creating more leaders every day. Thank you, Manju for starting the Rice Bucket Challenge. You are my Shero.

Child Labour Free Telangana

A new campaign is kickstarted by the Labour department, Government of Telangana for making the state Child Labour Free. This is a good indication. This poster is approved and will be a part of the campaign.

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Poster design by Varsha Bhargavi

Writing on the wall

Four girls from Kotthapalli village, in Rangareddy* district in Telangana, walk to reach their high school located 4 kms away in the Mandal headquarters. This was the routine for 4 years and they finally reached 10th class. For them going to school each day is a challenge as this was the only way for them to avoid an early marriage. Least did they know that one day they will be forced to drop out from school because of street sexual harassment.

Several women become grandmothers before they reach their 40th year
Girls face a bleak future as Child Marriages are rampant in the region. Several women become grandmothers before they reach their 40th year

The boy in question was around 18 followed the girls every day. The four girls did not pay much attention. One day he drew a heart symbol and wrote his name and one of the girl’s names in it, on a wall. This was noticed by one villager who immediately informed the parents of the girl and it created havoc in the tiny village. Parents of the other three girls heard the news by evening, and all the parents stopped the girls from going to school.

Their class teacher noticed the missing 4 girls in the attendance register and promptly informed the headmaster and both decided to inquire about the same. When they heard the story, they knew they were looking at a huge crisis as the parents assumed that, sending the girls to school caused the unwanted attention. A meeting was called by the Village Sarpanch and all boys from the village were summoned for a meeting and questioned about the incident, and eventually found the culprit. The teenager when questioned said that he wrote the names for fun. He was beaten up for his deed and was made to apologize to the girl in question.

It took several weeks of counselling to the parents and villagers to be convinced, that the girls would be safe and no one will tease them enroute to school. This is a positive story where the girls’ rights were not violated. But one couldn’t stop thinking about the worst case scenario that what was fun for boys had a serious and rather dangerous impact on girls’ lives. In this case 4 girls were at risk of losing their educational rights and were on the brink of becoming child brides despite the laws.

All India dropout rates for girls
Category Primary school     (I-Vclass) Upper Primary Schools                   (I-VII class) High School          (I-X class)
All girls 20% 40% 52%
Girls from SC community 24% 36% 55%
Girls from ST Community 34% 57% 67%
Age group (indicative) 6-11 yrs 6-14 yrs 6-16 yrs

Source: https://data.gov.in/catalog/dropout-rate (Year 2011-12 – census stats)

This is the gravity of situation in India when it comes to ‘Street Sexual Harassment’, which is lightly termed as ‘Eve Teasing by Indian government. This is the vulnerable situation girls in rural India live in everyday. At times this harassment leads to molestation, sexual abuse, and even rape. The results of this in rural India is even worse and leads to child marriages, early pregnancy, domestic violence, high maternal mortality rate, increase in infant mortality rate, mental health issues and a galore of other interlinked problems.

* 51,881 girls were married off as child brides before attaining the age of 18 in Ranga Reddy district of Telangana state as per census 2011 data. These are official numbers and are limited to child marriages. There are several forms of street sexual abuse that girls here endure, which are never reported and ruin the lives of young girls without giving them chance to emerge to support themselves with education and livelihood.

Conquering fear

Dar ke Aage Jeet Hai! Till yesterday I thought this was just another clichéd phrase used to sell an aerated drink. But realized the true meaning of conquering fear after doing the Mallela Teertham trek with Hyderabad Trekking Club (HTC). This was my first trek with HTC. Have to admit that I was a bit skeptical to join, considering the safety factor and the level of expertise within the club. Me being finicky about details while planning vacations for my clients, which I do for a living at Concept Voyages, I had a lot of unanswered questions and doubts when I joined HTC on this trek this Sunday.

Another apprehension I had was my own fitness level, despite practicing classical dance and a bit of kick boxing. Self doubt can kill confidence. Had a sleepless night before thinking about the trek and mentally preparing myself assuming the worst case scenario of falling down and breaking my bones.  We were supposed to meet the group at 4 AM at Hyderabad Central. 4 AM sharp as the instructions were given by Abhishek (Group Leader) in the WhatsApp group to keep everyone up the night before, dispelling the myth of Indian Stretchable Time. My phone started buzzing at 3 AM with messages and my alarm waking me up from my slumber. ‘Must I go?’ Mind does play games when you are aware of the rain beating on your bedroom window on a sleepy Sunday morning, wondering if the Ola cab guy would show up at 3.30 AM, among other excuses cropping up that makes you question the whole idea of waking up so early. Then I noticed a few fellow trekkers messaging on WhatsApp, asking if the trek was indeed on as it is raining heavily… making me wonder if it is safe to do it at all.

‘God, I am sleep deprived…I didn’t sleep for the whole week…Must I go?…. It’s a Sunday…  ’

Then Abhishek sends a message confirming that the trek is very much on. I dragged myself up to go and was cringing inwardly at my laziness after I found that the Ola cab driver, Hari more diligent than me, who showed up on time in the pouring rain at 3.30 AM sharp.

On reaching Hyderabad Central Mall, I found that I arrived first. ‘Where is everyone? Am I the only one here?…. So much for 4 AM sharp… ‘. Felt a bit foolish showing up on time to find myself alone and waiting for a bunch of strangers with whom I was going to spend a whole day trekking in unknown terrain. Then messages kept coming on WhatsApp,  Reaching in 5 mins…. 20 mins away…. No autos….. I hate Cabs….  the final one was a savior… I am standing opposite Hyd Central under the flyover…  from Yogesh. Huh, finally…. Someone is here. Hari, my Ola cab driver was kind enough to let me sit in the car till he got his next ride. We started exchanging reluctant yet polite hellos with fellow trekkers as we waited for the bus to show up. Then it did.

Started the journey at 4.40 AM. A bit late… but, okay as it was still drizzling… My evil mind started its work again…

‘what if it rains more heavily? … It’s not too late to jump off the bus and go back home…. It is a Sunday…. You got a bunch of other things to do… When was the last time you helped Amma in the kitchen?….’

Endless thoughts… Harish (Group Leader) joins us at LB Nagar and after a round of hellos, we all settle for a short slumber till it was bright outside.

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Group selfie at the dried up reservoir

Our first stop was at a dried up reservoir on the way, where we walked a bit, to reach a spot where our Group Leaders planned proper introductions with some ice breaking for the shy souls like me.

‘Hmm… these guys at HTC are smart… they do know what they are doing… ‘.

We all introduced ourselves to the group after walking half the length of the reservoir’s boundary… After a round of selfies… and our intros were supposed to be teamed up with a quick jig which the rest of the group followed with the lead of the introducer. It was outrightly awkward for me… but I have to admit that it was definitely a great ice breaker when you get to stand in the middle and introduce yourself and do a small jig mouthing  “Sagidi Sagidi Sa Pa Pa..”….. whatever that meant, it was fun. Thank you HTC! And did I say the organizers were smart… Yes, the ranting of the Sagidi mantra also turned out to be our warm up session with each one leading us to do push ups, hip rolls, bollywood dance moves… and more… Brilliant!

Next stop was at a wayside restaurant where we had a quick breakfast and packed some lunch. Unlike other groups I travelled with, HTC did maintain the time schedule well and all the participants were adhering to that. We made it up for the 40 minutes delay we had initially. And mind you, all this without any reminders about timing from the group leaders.

‘Hmm… I am impressed… these guys are really excited about the trek…. Let me give up the thought of jumping off the bus… this could be fun after all…’.

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New found friends, with Manisha and Meena

I found myself conversing easily about varied topics with my new found friends Meena and Manisha, who shared their earlier experiences with HTC treks boosting up my confidence. We also signed an indemnity relieving HTC and making ourselves aware of the risks we were undertaking during the trek.

As we hit the Srisailam road the leaders got us into a playing Dumb Charades where I dicovered how ignorant I am with movie names….

‘Really, did they make a movie called POTUGAADU?…. God!’.  

Before my mind got to work on the details on how idiotic Telugu movie titles can be and how much garbage is served to audiences, we reached the village road where we took a detour to reach Mallela Teertham waterfalls. Harish and Abhishek, our Tour leaders were giving instructions very assertively, which included rules about littering, rules of the jungle, behavior within the group, etc.

‘Hmm… impressive…A fine of Rs. 100 for littering and which keeps doubling for repeating the offence in the jungle seems good… Well thought out and a good way to educate youngsters for being responsible… Good one HTC.’

When we reached the point where we had to go down about 400 odd steps to reach the waterfall, Abhishek jokes about not looking at anyone’s faces of the tourists who were returning back.  We didn’t get the joke until we were in their shoes later that evening.

Ok, 400 steps down, we see the Mallela Theetham waterfall. Now what? Harish announces that this is what regular tourists see. But HTC has something else for us which sounded very exciting.

 ‘Ok, lead on Sir… let’s see what you have got…’

We took a small detour walking through the uneven terrain interspersed with tiny steams, slippery rocks and the forest thicket, with Harish leading us and Abhishek following us closely behind, meticulously keeping the head count every 20 minutes to ensure all of us were sticking together. That was impressive.

At every point where we stopped to catch our breath, looking up at the scenery, as we discovered pristine beauty of Nallamala forest surround us. While we were engrossed trudging on our path, we failed to look up, but the rustling leaves, stagnant pools of brown water, tall wild trees offering us shade as well as a bit of sun…  wherever we stopped for a minute or two to look up, the scenery was breathtaking. When we looked back at the path, it seemed to disappear and all I could see was Abhishek’s toothy smile as he was checking on the group ahead. I was later told that they marked the path (mentally) from their earlier solo treks once, before bringing in the group.

Now, began the fun and scary part. We were supposed to get off the rocky hillock using our bare hands and feet as support without any equipment.

‘You must be kidding… I can never do this…’ my evil mind was at work again…

So far it was only trudging through the jungle and rocks… but I didn’t expect this.

‘How on earth am I supposed to get off that waterfall with so much moss around, supporting myself with my bare hands? I am not cut out for this. Treks in Canada are different. We just walk on uneven terrain where the trails are clearly marked. This is madness. I can’t do this…. Can I go back?… err… where is path? … What if I fall and break my neck?… I don’t have insurance…’

As I was nurturing my fear, Harish led the way and showed us how to do it. Rest of the group followed the lead with ease… I was frozen. Fear crept up my spine when it was my turn. I waited till the end to do the acrobatic move of rock climbing, which  I only saw in Mission Impossible movies.  As I reluctantly started downhill grimacing about Tom Cruise getting paid handsomely for whatever he did in the movies and there were teams of experts and safety equipment, and all I had was Harish standing there asking me to put my left foot on a doubtful crevice and supporting my weight on my hands and move horizontally along the wet rocky wall… as I looked down, I knew it could be a free fall. If I slip, I would break my neck and probably more than my neck… Harish was coaxing me to move slowly… his instructions were encouraging… yet, I didn’t trust him. He himself was standing on the edge of a rock (quite comfortably though), and it was only a couple of inches wide. What if I fall? I will take him down with me. Then we both will have broken bones. Maybe not him, but I will… for sure…

I mustered up enough courage to start climbing down. And I froze, right there in the middle holding on to half an inch wide crevice of a wet mossy rock with my left hand, groping for support with my right hand, one foot on an inch wide branch that seemed to be tightly entwined with the rocks and my right foot on another inch wide crevice. And I froze. As I stood still looking down, shivering with fear, ignoring Harish from down and Abhishek from the top who were nudging me gently to move on, I realized that I had this terrible fear of heights, which came to light now. Must self discovery happen now?  I stood there stupidly without moving a muscle hanging on dangerously, letting my vagrant mind play a different kind of game with me. I was actually wondering how formidable the branch was, as it took my weight and several others’ too, who took its support to get down. Then someone shouted from top asking me to look up for a photograph breaking into my thought process.

‘You must be nuts, here I am counting seconds wondering how stupid I would look falling off from an 8-9 feet high piled up rocks in wilderness and dying, and you want to photograph me, as I mull over my last few living moments on earth?’…

I gave a nervous smile and started moving horizontally. Overcoming that fearful moment was a breakthrough personally. It was exhilarating.

Everyone clapped when I finally made it all the way down. To cut the story short, we later climbed down a few more rocks, waded through water, got drenched in the waterfall, which was refreshing and fun. All boys went further down the mountain giving us girls some privacy to change. Then we had lunch and the conversation stopped abruptly when one of us asked how we are going to get back. Abhishek casually replied, “The same way… how we came…”.

‘Errr…. What? No way… Climbing down was supposed to be easy, but climbing up? … What did I get into?…. ‘.

As Harish too reaffirms that we are going back the same way as we came, I was dead sure that I could never climb up.

‘These guys are strong. I am tiny, puny, frail and anemic too. Maybe they will leave me behind for the tigers… maybe they are just kidding… there is another way…’.

No, there wasn’t. We started back… on the same path, with some of us a bit tired, I was exhausted and wondering if I could really climb up. Harish and Abhishek seemed more confident about me, than my sorry self.  They were indeed right. They must have seen far more chicken hearts like me at HTC.

Rest is history. I am not going into details as I want all of you who are reading this, to go on a trek with HTC. All I can say is, you will be in good hands. The group leaders are meticulous in planning the whole event. They have contingency plans in place. They are prepared and armed with all the necessary permits from the forest department. They know the terrain well and most importantly they are patient and encouraging throughout the trip.

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Trek done! Conquered fear!! Victory!!!

End note: I realized something about fear at that moment when I froze on that rock waiting for my impending death (Okay I am exaggerating I thought we could use some drama). As you nurture the fear that freezes you, it also eventually gives up and releases you from its grasp eventually.  I felt that the same fear that scared the wits out of me was actually coaxing me to conquer it. That moment was magical and exhilarating. Whoever came up with the slogan for that extremely commercialized and ghastly aerated drink, “Darr ke Aage Jeet Hai” (translated as Victory lies ahead of Fear) was so right. Thank you HTC for making me realize the true meaning of that. Victory indeed lies ahead of Fear.

“Darr ke Aage such much Jeet Hai!!” Hence proved!

Are Shaadi Mubarak and Kalyana Lakshmi schemes promoting gender inequality?

When you start looking at Child Rights in detail, you will start seeing all the interlinked socio-economic problems in the society we created in the modern world. Adilabad district co-ordinator for Child Rights Protection Forum (CRPF), Mirza Yakub Baig, brought up the issue of gender equality in marriageable age for boys and girls in India – he was referring to the complexities a girl faces when married off when she turns 18. In India, 18 years is the legal age for girls, and 21 years for boys, to get married.

But, Mirza had a big problem with that, and so he raised the issue in the CRPF general body meeting held in Hyderabad.

Mirza vociferously argues the case of Gender Inequality and points out the same in the law which set the minimum marriageable age for a girl as 18. The rest of the team was reluctant to agree with his point of view. ‘Why change the law when it is already there? Let us focus on stopping Child Marriages, rather than putting a new issue before the government. Besides, girls develop a much mature mindset compared to boys, so 18 and 21 is the right age.’ This was the opinion of the board, which included two women members too.

Adolescent girls asking for Gender Equality at Bommanapalli village, Mahabubnagar district in Telangana, with Child Rights Activist Yadamma
Adolescent girls asking for Gender Equality at Bommanapalli village, Mahabubnagar district in Telangana, with Child Rights Activist Yadamma

‘Shaadi Mubarak’ and ‘Kalyana Lakshmi’ schemes doled out by Telangana government

But Mirza stood his ground on Gender Equality, and started explaining how the girls are pushed into matrimony and motherhood by the government itself. It is not just the law he was picking on, but the generous ‘Kalyana Lakshmi’ scheme and ‘Shaadi Mubarak’ scheme of the Telangana government.

But that was actually helping the Child Welfare committees in rural India to push the age of the girl child to 18 years, and to derive the benefits of the scheme. Then why is Mirza opposing it?

‘Shaadi Mubarak’ and ‘Kalyana Lakshmi’ schemes were launched by the state government to curb child marriages in rural areas of Telangana state, and to uplift the Scheduled Caste (SC), Schedule Tribe (ST) and Muslim minorities from poverty by empowering the girl child. The government deposits Rs. 51,000 in the girl’s account at the time of her marriage, provided that she attains 18 years of age. This scheme was given to families with less than Rs. 2,00,000 annual income.

The scheme did really get a good response in rural areas, to push the marriageable age of the girl child to 18. But Mirza points out that this scheme is anything but a blessing for a girl who wants to pursue higher education. At 18, a girl will finish her higher secondary school, which is not enough to get a job, unless she pursues graduation or takes up skill-based training. He raised the issue of gender inequality here, where the boy’s marriageable age is 21 – convenient for him to graduate from college and pursue a career or higher education – a choice not given to a girl.

As the families are poverty-ridden and illiterate, they are in a hurry to get the girl married off as soon as she turns 18, now with the government’s assistance.

Linking Illiteracy and Malnourishment to Gender Inequality

The problem doesn’t end there. Mirza emphasizes that a girl with limited education and exposure is often unaware of birth control methods, and this leads to early pregnancy and complications in child birth. Many adolescent girls are severely malnourished, and their bodies are not ready for pregnancy or childbirth, leading to health issues. Mirza brings out the UNICEF report on malnourishment, which states:

“Undernourished girls grow up to become undernourished women who give birth to a new generation of undernourished children. Women are given the responsibility – but often not the means (empowerment) – to ensure optimal nutrition for their children. A recent study in Andhra Pradesh shows that women with higher autonomy (both financial and physical, for example – the freedom to go to the market) are less likely to have stunted children.”

He adds that infant mortality rate was 30 per 1000 in year 2010, when the last survey was conducted. This, he attributes to early marriages and malnourishment factors in girls.

Socio-economic standing among SC and ST communities in Adilabad

Adding to the woes, there are over 1000 villages and habitations without an Aanganwadi centres in Adilabad district, as per the Andhra Pradesh State Planning Development Society survey conducted in 2010 when Telangana was a part of Andhra Pradesh state. The situation is the same even after five years since the survey.
Of the total population of the State, scheduled castes constitute 15.44% and the scheduled tribes 9.34%. The percentage of scheduled tribes population is higher than the national average of 8.60%. And Adilabad district ranks the 3rd highest in Scheduled Tribes population in both AP and Telangana states, as per 2011 census, with 17.8% Scheduled Caste and 18.1% Scheduled Tribes.
The 2014 Socio-economic census survey conducted by Telangana state government presents another pressing problem in SC and ST communities on the literacy front. It talks about a high dropout rate in the State, particularly among the SC and ST students in classes I to X.
The dropout rates are 40.3% for SC students and as high as 62.8% among the ST communities.
Apart from appalling literacy levels of the district, health survey results too are not very promising. The maternal mortality rate (MMR), at 152, is very high in the district of Adilabad, as compared with the national average of 167. The percentage of home deliveries, at 11.5%, as per District Level Household Survey (2012-13) conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai, is found to be very high in the backward district of Adilabad, making this district vulnerable in all aspects.
The report also states that 71.2% of the pregnant women in Adilabad district are anemic. That sums up the case presented by Mirza.

Further misuse of the well-intentioned scheme

Having encountered several socio-economic issues, Mirza shares some first hand information about the way the scheme is being misused by poverty-ridden destitute families from Adilabad. Some families do not hesitate to botch up the data submitted in the Aadhaar card centres, which is used to authenticate the age of the beneficiary. The corrections at Aadhar centres are prevalent without any proper checks or supporting documents.
Normally any data correction pertaining to age should be submitted at the data centre with supporting documents like birth certificate, school leaving certificate, etc., along with letters from village Sarpanch or a competent authority like Mandal Revenue Officer, which is not happening at the moment, according to Mirza.
The Government of Telangana launched a scheme, but failed to look into the most pressing issue of gender inequality, making this well-intentioned scheme a failure, in supporting the girls from pursuing higher education according to Mirza.
  1. 100 million: Number of girls worldwide who will be married before 18 in the next decade across the world.
  2. 50% of girls in India are married off before they turn 18.
  3. Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households.
  4. Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children. Pregnancy is consistently among the leading causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide.
  5. Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than those in their 20s.
  6. Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later. A study conducted by ICRW in two states in India found that girls who were married before 18 were twice as likely to report being beaten, slapped or threatened by their husbands than girls who married later.
  7. Child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.
Mirza Yakub Baig, Co-convenor, Child Rights Protection Forum, Adilabad district, Telangana
Mirza Yakub Baig, Co-convenor, Child Rights Protection Forum, Adilabad district, Telangana

Mirza Yakub Baig has been working on protecting Child Rights since 1995 with MV Foundation. He served as a School Management Committee Chairman in 1991, District Body Member, and Child Welfare Committee Member for 7 consecutive years, and now as Co-Convenor for Child Rights Protection Forum, a community-based initiative to protect Child Rights in Adilabad district.

The Unending Male Entitlement Over Female Bodies

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This happened just yesterday as I was returning home after attending a thought provoking seminar by Hyderabad Collective, hearing from rural journalist P. Sainath and Prof. Gopal Guru. I shared a ride in an autorickshaw with my Professor, Saras Ma’am who teaches history at Kasturba Gandhi College for Women. She too was equally delighted with the topics that were discussed and was sharing her own experiences about rational thinking and how it can be applied in our daily lives.

Hyderabad was as usual was buzzing with life even at 9 PM, but the traffic was thankfully thinning. As we both cringed inwardly looking at the saffron flags being sold on the roadside, we both had the same question in mind about whether we can manage to attend the second day of Hyderabad Collective seminar to hear Siddharth Varadarajan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. 22ndApril 2016 is Hanuman Jayanthi which means there will be more men on the streets expressing their religious fervor by vehemently imposing their ideologies on everyone and anyone. The saffron flag sale outlets were doing brisk business. As Saras Ma’am was voicing out her concern about whether anyone’s checking the environmental impact such festival decorations are likely to have, we stopped at a traffic signal.

A man who was asking people for money quickly approached us. He looked dirty, unkempt, shirtless with only a trouser hanging loosely on him. He was dragging one of his leg as he begged for money in sign language, projecting himself as being too exhausted to talk. I noticed that there was nothing wrong with any of his body parts that gave him a reason to beg. In fact, he looked a lot healthier beneath all the dirt and grime. Noticing this, I politely refused by putting my palms together and mumbled “Maaf karo bhai” (Sorry, brother) and continued the conversation with Saras ma’am. This is a regular phrase used by Hyderabadis while refusing to give money to those who beg.

As we continued our discussion, the man went around other vehicles before returning back to us and quickly worded an expletive line in Telugu which translated to something like this, “You are shamelessly showing off your breasts by wearing revealing clothes in public!” It took us some time to comprehend what he actually said. Before we could even react the signal turned green and our auto driver sped off. We both were utterly shocked when it sunk in, but chose not mention it. The humiliation was unbearable for the rest of our journey for me as well as Saras Ma’am, who will be retiring next year. We did not speak a word until we reached our destination.

Only a couple of days ago, I was tweeting my experiences on sexual harassment with the hashtag#WhenIWas. While tweeting, I was also reading other women’s set of ordeals in similar situations and all the trauma they had to endure before sharing it within 140 character limit on Twitter. My encounter to sexual harassment began when I was 8 yrs old and was raped by my uncle. I kind of grew numb inside as my parents did not stop him from coming home even after I told them what he did to me, with my limited vocabulary. The physical pain was unbearable but it dulled after a few days. I used to run away and hide behind my mom when he walked around. After a few years I grew numb towards any male advances I encountered. Not that I didn’t feel hurt, but each time the numbness grew along with the dull pain which stayed on. That might sound like an oxymoron, when I say numb and pain together, but it is in fact, exactly that.

We women carry on with our lives, going to school, working, interacting with friends, attending family functions, pursuing careers, falling in love, getting married, having babies, raising children, watching them grow and all that, with a cloud above our head. That cloud refuses to go away. We carry that cloud with us wherever we go, whatever we do. Only we can see it and feel it as the molesters and rapists live inside our heads. It is easy for anyone from outside to advise us to forget and move on. My fellow survivors said the same thing to me. And I said the same to my friends in similar situations. As we all share the same secret. No matter how much we try to erase these sexual harassment incidents -verbal as well as non-verbal, they just stay with us making us grow numb and dulled with pain. Any new encounter of sexual harassment only adds to the density of the cloud we each of us have above our heads.

Yesterday’s incident was just one such encounter. The man just assumed that he was entitled to pass a vile comment on my body parts, like any other man in India. Should I have reacted? Yes, absolutely. But then I stop and think about the ordeal I would have had to put up with in explaining what he said, to the police. I may have had to repeat myself several times before the perpetrator gets a verbal warning or a bit of thrashing. But that’s about it. Even the law enforcement would ridicule me for wanting to press charges. It enrages me to see the notion of male entitlement over women’s bodies as if we are some lifeless sex toys . The rage builds up each time I encounter someone leering at my body, lecherously trying to occupy my personal space, touching me unnecessarily, remarking about my physical attributes, try to correlate my physical attributes to express their dismay that I am also intelligent, mansplain to me after I made a valid point and so on!

As for the revealing clothes the man was referring to, me and my professor both were wearing salwar kameez with dupatta. Only mine was sleeveless as seen in the image above

This article was originally published on Spoilt Modern Indian Woman website.