Archive for December, 2007

Unsung Heroes: Krishnan Profile on IBNLive


Earlier this year, Mark and I met with two editors at CNN-IBN to give them suggestions of people to profile for a series on the “real heroes” of India. One of the people we recommended was Krishnan, in Madurai. CNN-IBN’s report and video are now up on IBNLive.

Krishnan serves the “uncared” – the elderly, destitute, mentally unstable – providing wholesome, good food and clean water three times a day, baths, haircuts, and clean clothing. It costs Krishnan Rs. 8,000 (approximately US$ 200) a day to provide these services for 200 people – US$1 per day per person. Krishnan operates through a registered NGO (with tax exemption under section 80G of the Indian Income Tax Code) called Akshaya Trust. This year, after 5 years of unstinted service, Akshaya Trust plans to set up a residential home on the outskirts of Madurai for 200 people for an estimated cost of Rs. 95 lakhs (US$ 238,000).  We are glad to know that the donations that have come in to Akshaya Trust from the CNN-IBN story will go towards the continued care for the “uncared” of Madurai.

Shown below are some pictures of Krishnan’s clients, taken during our “ride-along” with Krishnan in January 2005.

krishnan1.jpg krishnan3.jpg krishnan4.jpg krishnan5.jpg krishnan6.jpg

Krishnan may be contacted here:

9, West 1st Main Street,
Doak Nagar Extn.,
Madurai – 625 010.
Ph: +91-452-4353439, 2587104
Cell: +91-98433 19933


Pondicherry “Beach”

Pondicherry “Beach”
Pondicherry “Beach”

This is the coast of Pondicherry. What was once a beautiful beach is now a rock seawall, all the way from the mouth of the Ariyankuppam river, along the entire Pondicherry coastline, and across into Tamil Nadu.

Two days ago, the government of Pondicherry, in an effort to appease the traditional fishermen at Ariyankuppam, commissioned an aged dredger (no longer used in Kerala) from the Kerala State Maritime Development Corporation to dredge the mouth of the river. The work order is to dredge 100,000 cubic meters of sand to give the fishermen, who are not able to launch their boats due to silting of the river mouth (primarily from accretion of sand which has been blocked from moving up the coast because of the “new” harbor that was completed in 1989) access to the sea.  (A government research organization, the Central Water and Power Research Station in Pune, recommends that 400,000 cubic meters of sand be removed each year to allow for the free movement of fishing vessels.)

In their wisdom, the Port officials had decided to dig a “pit” so as to “trap” the sand that moves north along this coast at a rate of .6 million cubic meters for 9 months of the year. The dredged sand would then have been dumped into the ocean.

Members of the Pondicherry Citizens Action Network (PondyCAN) are trying to prevail upon city officials to move the sand further north along the coast to replenish some of the coastline north of the obstructive harbor (which has never been used as a commercial port). Whether or not port officials agree, 100,000 cubic meters of sand is but a drop in the bucket (to use a hackneyed phrase) compared to the 9 million cubic meters necessary to replenish the sand lost to erosion since 1989.

The Battle for Orissa

India: The Battle for Orissa” is the title of an article by Manjeet Kripalani, BusinessWeek‘s India bureau chief, dated 3 December 2007. The “battle” pits the world’s largest mining companies against the indigenous people (the “tribals”) of Orissa. In essence, a battle between “development” and the environment (primary forests, watersheds, biodiversity, wildlife protection) and the way of life of the indigenous forest dwellers.

For though the state has been known for decades for hunger and poverty, cyclones, and droughts, Orissa is now renowned for its mineral wealth: It has the majority of India’s iron ore, chrome ore, coal, and bauxite reserves. And all of this is required to fuel the country’s manufacturing revolution.

That’s why the world’s largest steel and metals conglomerates are sitting on Orissa’s shores, awaiting clearances from the government so they can get to work on the mineral ores there. Between Posco, Arcelor-Mittal, Tata Steel, Jindal Steel, and a few others, there is $45 billion in investment waiting to get into Orissa.

But they are all on hold. Like much of India in transition, Orissa is taking a long time to adjust to its new status. Much of the area on which (or under) the state’s mineral wealth sits is tribal, forested land that cannot be cleared and reassigned to companies without due process.

They [tribals] are the biggest losers in the transition, and there are very few to plead their case. Especially not the politicians, who in their desire to put Orissa on par with the rest of India, are doing whatever it takes to speed up development in the state, even at the cost of the environment and its people. That has become the basis of a major battle in the courts, in the Orissa legislature, and on the land itself.

Despite her statement above, Kripalani puts a somewhat positive spin on the current state of this “battle” by describing a stalled effort by Tata Steel to put a boundary wall around it’s 1,000 plus acre property which the locals refused to vacate (a dozen of whom were killed when fired upon by the police).  (This piece of property is probably insignificant to the Tata’s, whom Kripalani describes as the  “oldest commodity company to do business in Orissa” that “has been mining ore in the state for nearly 100 years.”)

Now Orissa’s tribals, and their fellow Indian citizens, are witness to a bitter battle over the nature of India’s mineral wealth and its true cost to both industry and society. … If all goes well, India will learn about the price of each ton of steel, not just its cost in monetary terms, but also its environmental and social costs. Luckily, Orissa’s resources are so plentiful that it will take 50 years before they begin to be depleted. Hopefully, the right battles will have been fought and won by then, and the right lessons learned.

I don’t know where Kripalani gets her optimism about India learning the “right lessons” and fighting and winning the “right battles”. Every government entity, from the Forest Department all the way to the Supreme Court has marginalized the tribals in favor of “development” and the requisite personal payoffs that come with it. And in one recent case regarding the mining of the summit of Niyamgiri, due process was completely denied.

According to the latest (2001) census, Scheduled Tribes make up 22% of the population of Orissa (with a total of 63 tribes recognized by the constitution of India) compared with 8% of the total population of India. The tribal people of Orissa occupy the slopes of the mountains in the region.

For generations, people here [near the Badrama Wildlife Sanctuary] had rights over the natural resources in their forests. With independence, however, forest resources were brought under the purview of the forest department, and local residents have been waging a fierce battle to re-capture their rights and secure their livelihood.

The story of Badrama’s tribal population goes something like this. The sanctuary, then a reserve forest, used to be under the control of the former state of Bamanda. According to the Bamanda Forest Rule, people living adjacent to the forest had rights to collect minor forest produce like edible roots, leaves, fruits, flowers and grass for bona fide purposes. The law even granted them permission to take up lucrative lac cultivation, especially of kusum trees inside the reserve forest, as well as free bamboo extraction by tenants to meet their domestic needs. Special concessions were given to primitive tribal groups like the Juang, allowing them to collect bamboo free of cost and with no prior permission. There was no restriction on their processing and selling products to earn a livelihood.

When the government declared Badrama a wildlife sanctuary, the forest department curtailed people’s rights and access to the forests. – From “Orissa’s tribals: Give us only what is rightfully ours” by Ranjan K Panda

One example of Forest Department intervention in the livelihoods of the tribals is the restrictions on the collection and processing of kendu leaves (used for rolling bidis – handmade cigarettes) and bamboo products. (These and other forest products have been nationalized.) The Forest Department either prohibits the collection of leaves and bamboo from the forests, charges an entry fee, or asks for bribes to allow collection. Since 1990, the Orissa Forest Development Corporation Ltd. (OFDC) has been responsible for the “collection, exploitation, and marketing” of forest products, including the marketing of kendu leaf (Orissa is the third largest producer in India), relegating the tribals to a Food for Work program funded by World Food Programme.

Industrial interests have been given a free hand to exploit the natural resources on tribal land.  Earlier this year, for example, Vedanta Resources PLC won their battle to mine the summit of Niyamgiri for bauxite to supply an aluminum refinery that it had built without first getting clearances to mine the hills.

In September 2004, the ministry of environment and forests had granted environmental clearance for the refinery, but the central empowered committee, appointed by the Supreme Court, noted that the clearance was obtained by concealing material particulars principally that no forest land was involved in the project, whereas about 660 hectares of forest land was involved. – From “Tribal trouble adds to Vedanta green tension” by Subrat Das, The Telegraph

Sanjay Parikh, the Supreme Court advocate handling the case on behalf of the tribal groups,  describes the Niyamgiri hills as a sacred site for the Dongria Kondhs – an area still forested and protected by the Dongria Kondhs who worship the trees, animals and plants in the forest. A source of springs that feeds rivers that supply water to the farmlands below. A rich primal forest that is home to leopards and an elephant corridor.

The Forestry Bench of the Supreme Court, composed of India’s Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, Arjit Passayat (from Orissa), and S.H. Kappadia decided in favor of granting clearance to Vendanta Resources to mine Niyamgiri, going against the strong recommendations of their own advisory council, the Central Empowered Committee, and without hearing the arguments of Mr. Parikh on behalf of a petitioner representing the tribal people of Niyamgiri.

A recap of the Vendata case can be found in the following blog entry: “The Betrayal of Niyamgiri – Vedanta mining and the Dongria tribals.

As one outraged activist commented: “Just as the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has become like the Ministry of Mining, the Supreme Court is becoming like the Supreme Mining Clearance Court of India.”

Tech Awards Call for Nominations – deadline 24 March 2008

It’s that time again – The Tech Museum is putting out a global call for nominations for the Tech Awards, which recognize technologies that benefit humanity.  Those of you who know small NGOs around the world doing great work – please nominate them.  I am always disappointed to find so many winners from the “developed” world.  While Sumitomo Chemical deserves recognition and acclaim for inventing a cost-effective technology for long-lasting mosquito nets, does it really need the award money?  And all the individuals and organizations from the U.S. and Canada who have won – again, most of these people are well connected, informed, and networked – they have the means and ability to get funding from multiple sources.  Let’s nominate those for whom this award will have tremendous impact.

Tech Museum Awarding $250,000 in Cash Prizes

Global Call For Nominations of Innovators Using Technology to Benefit Humanity

Nomination Deadline: March 24, 2008

The Tech Museum Awards is a unique and prestigious program that honors and awards innovators from around the world who use technology to benefit humanity in the categories of:

  • Education
  • Equality
  • Economic Development
  • Environment
  • Health

Reward those making a difference and nominate today. A simple nomination form can be found at Self-nominations are accepted and encouraged. Individuals, nonprofit organizations, and companies are all eligible. Program details, including judging criteria, can be found at The Tech Museum Awards website listed above.

Each year, 25 Laureates are honored at a gala dinner, invited to participate in press and media coverage, and introduced to a network of influential advisors. An inspirational and unforgettable event, the black-tie celebration will be held at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, on November 12, 2008. One Laureate in each category will be granted a $50,000 cash prize.

Gillian Caldwell of WITNESS, 2003 Laureate in the Equality category and cash prize recipient, called The Tech Museum Awards”…a truly remarkable program that has given WITNESS acclaim for using technology to document human rights abuses. I was deeply honored to be recognized along with 24 other innovators from around the world who are working to improve human life through technology. The exposure generated from receiving this award and the $50,000 cash prize will surely lead to expanded services, awareness, and improved solutions for ending violations of human rights.

The Kingfishers (and other fauna) of Bhitarkanika, Orissa

Brown-winged Kingfisher
Brown-winged Kingfisher 

December 10 & 11, 2007

Bhitarkanika (National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary) is the second largest mangrove eco-system (next to the Sundarbans) in India.  It is a spectacular place – as yet largely unspoiled (although the one habited Forestry station where we stopped to show our permits was strewn with litter) – a place you would never tire of visiting.  It is home to the largest population of Giant Salt Water (Estuarine) crocodiles in India, the largest nesting ground for the Olive Ridley sea turtles in the world, and an amazing number of resident and migratory birds, including eight species of Kingfishers.

White-throated Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher

In the two days we spent in Bhitarkanika, traveling by motor boat for 6-7 hours a day, skirting river banks for most of the day, we saw five of the eight species of Kingfishers found here:  White-throated, Black-capped, Pied, Common, and the extremely rare Brown-winged (according to the latest literature in Bhitarkanika, one of only 50 birds in the park). We only saw the Black-capped kingfisher and the Common kingfisher (two of each) in flight, but lots of White-throated and Pied kingfishers perched, fishing, and in flight.  The sole Brown-winged kingfisher stayed perched on a tree branch hanging over the river even as we brought the boat around for a second glimpse, marveling at its bright pink bill and even brighter pink feet.

Estuarine Crocodile
Giant Salt Water (Estuarine) Crocodile 

Our introduction to the fauna of Bhitarkanika was almost immediate,  with the sighting of an enormous crocodile, half hidden in the long grasses by the river bank, which did a half flip as it plunged into the water upon our approach.  Then, as I wondered whether we would see any Irrawaddy dolphins (we didn’t get a good look at them in Lake Chilka), a pod appeared port side. And, a huge Water Monitor lizard basked on the bank as we left the permit check at Khola Creek.

Bar-headed Geese
Bar-headed Geese

I won’t list all the birds (egrets, herons, darters, storks, ibises, plovers, sandpipers, bee eaters, ducks and geese) that we saw (not that I could identify them all), but besides lots of crocodiles and the monitor lizard, we saw spotted deer (that bark!), Rhesus monkeys, and a couple of different water snakes.

Spotted Deer
Spotted Deer

We were all dozing off as we turned to head back to Chandbali when the motorman’s helper cried out.  He had spotted a sea turtle.  It was an Olive Ridley sea turtle, one of the first to make it this close to the nesting beaches in Gahirmatha.  (We had asked before we set off whether we could stay overnight at Gahirmatha, hoping to see nesting sea turtles, but had been told that the turtles hadn’t arrived yet – they were “on their way”.) And here it was!  Our initial excitement turned to sadness as, upon closer examination, we saw that there was blood on several places on the turtle’s shell.  We assume that it had been injured in a fishing net, a major cause of death for sea turtles.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle
Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Our last few hours were uneventful, as we passed picturesque village scenes of rice harvesting and straw stacking and fishermen working their fish and shrimp nets. Not even a crocodile in sight.

Orissa Famous Rassogolla

Orissa Famous Rassogolla
Bikalananda Kar’s Rassogollas, Salepur

9 December 2007

Puru, Maya, Mark and I set off from Cuttack, three people lighter, on our way to Bhitarkanika National Park on Day 6 of our “vacation” in Orissa. As we approached the State highway that would take us to Chandbali, our destination for the night, we asked the driver if there were any specialties (food, of course) anywhere along the way. BK Sahu’s face lit up and he said: “Sir, the rassogollas in Salepur are famous. It is a compulsory stop for anyone passing by.” Well, if it was a compulsory stop, then stop we must.


Contrary to popular opinion (that the Bengali’s have made sure to propagate), the rassogolla was invented in Orissa and the best rassogollas in Orissa are to be found at Bikalananda Kar’s Rassogollas in Salepur. Indeed, the rassogollas (or rasgullas, as they are otherwise pronounced and spelled in Hindi) at the Kar Brothers’ establishment are wonderful. They are slightly darker in color than the ones in West Bengal or elsewhere in India because these are cooked in syrup sweetened with gur (unrefined palm sugar). And they are absolutely fresh. They don’t have the slightly spongy, even squeeky, texture of other rasgullas I’ve had.

In addition to the rassogollas, we had deep fried snacks which they called “vadai“, sort of like pakoras, served with a sweet and slightly spicy chutney made with tamarind, mango, chili and the secret ingredient: left-over rassogolla syrup.

Off to Orissa

We have been in Pondicherry for 48 hours – just enough time to see the majority of our friends, clean our room to make it habitable, and top up our SIM cards – and we are off to Orissa. We are going on “vacation” (it is unclear what it means for us to be on “vacation”) with 5 friends. A month ago, I believed we had a set itinerary – a very logical south to north progression along the eastern coast of Orissa. 5 days before we departed for India, I learned that our itinerary had been turned pretty much upside down. Two hours before we depart, everything is still up in the air, except for our first destination.

At 11:30pm, after a possible tour of Dakshinachitra and Mahabalipuram and dinner with a couple of friends in Chennai, we will board the Howrah Mail from Chennai Central and arrive in Cuttack the night of the 4th. The next evening, we will attend the annual Konark Dance Festival, set in the natyamandir (dancing hall) of the sun temple of Konark, a world heritage site. We hope to visit Chilka Lake, the city of Puri, Gram Vikas (an NGO whose campus is located near Berhampur), Bhitarkanika National Park, and Simlipal Tiger Reserve or the Sundarbans, not necessarily in this order. We depart from Calcutta the evening of the 14th or the morning of the 16th.

Wish us luck tiger-spotting.


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