India, here I am again. Seven weeks in my home away from home, in this compelling, special country, where beauty and horror, wealth and poverty, happiness and sorrow are so close to each other and where saddening and sobering moments that make you ask „Why?“, are mixed with feelings of gratitude and humbleness. A country, that after so many visits doesn’t seem strange anymore but like a place I belong to.
I was not only glad to come to India because of the packed schedule for the next weeks, with an extended field visit in Tirmasahun bringing projects such as the building of the community center and the implementation of the water technology forward and meetings with politicians in Delhi that might be willing to support our projects in the village. I am also glad to escape the German winter.
However, these days large chunks of India have been lashed by strong wind and rains, including Chandigarh, where I spent a couple of days before travelling to Tirmasahun. India turns into a big muddy mess when it rains heavily due to inadequate infrastructure to manage the water. So I woke to a grey, wet and cold India. There’s not much to do in grey, wet, cold India, so just to get out the house we went to do some shopping at the local fruit and vegetable market. I can recognise most local produce by now but there’s always something new and I stand staring at it curiously trying to work out what it could be.
Something struck me: In the four years I’ve been coming to India, I’ve seen a huge jump in food prices. However, there hasn’t been the equivalent jump in wages and this gap makes things like tomatoes, onions and all sorts of fruit out of range for increasing numbers of people. A life of rice, chapatti and dal with tiny pickings of lowest grade greens makes for a miserable diet but is reality for many poor Indians. From 2004 to 2013, food prices rose by 157% with certain items like cabbages much, much more (714%). All this is due to a complicated mixture of greed, weather, world conditions and bad management.
After my visit to the market, I passed by some tents. These makeshift tent structures, sometimes supported against a wall or with a section made of scrap metal or bricks, are home to migrant labourers who are working on small construction sites close by. These triangular shaped tents set in temporary camps represent for me one of the major miseries on the urban Indian landscape. God knows how they manage in the rain. Whole families trying to rest from a hard day’s labour in rain soaked plastic. Most children don’t attend school and children also work from an early as labourers. I saw the tents last time I visited and felt that I had to help. But time was short then, so it remained an idea. I still don’t know where to find the time or funds to help them, plus they are one of the most difficult groups to help because they move around so much. I just know that I feel shame when I do nothing. So on the way back from the market, I started talking to them. We met two women on the way to the toilet (outside of course) and the younger one (aged 17 and married since one year) was open and curious, so we chatted a little. Next I made a friend bring me over to a longer term family, who her mother supports with food and translate for me. I asked them if I could come tomorrow to talk to them and to understand their lives more. They agreed.
So the next day I talked to them as agreed. It was a saddening and also a sobering experience. No one knows their age. Not the parents and not the children. The mother of six children is ‘not more than 35’, her two older children ‘around’ 15 and 17, the remaining 4 seem to range from 3 to 12. The oldest girl Goldie (that’s her name) was the most bold in talking and explained the sleeping and cooking arrangements. 8 people sleep on 3 cots (a type of single bed). They cook in a tiny clay oven beside the tent and shower from a water pipe. The defecate in nearby fields. In fact this family even are lucky, as they have the support of the people in the neighbouring (concrete) homes and earn a little money and food by working in their garden. The mother is very sickly, just skin and bones and I suspect also not 100% mentally fit, the father is lazy and the two oldest girls support the family by working as maids. They know that the family came from their village in Uttar Pradesh. but couldn’t tell me where exactly it is. Not one of them had ever spent a single day in a school. Although depressing, none of this was a surprise for me. What really saddened me was when I spoke to Goldie and her sister and realised that they are so oppressed, so exhausted by life, so silenced as women that the concept of happiness, dreams and hopes has already been extinguished in them When I asked these questions, they seemed puzzled. After some probing, they said ‘we are not educated, we don’t know of such things’. I asked of dreams and finally, almost as an after thought Goldie said, „Why to dream? It will remain a dream.“. It was as if they had no voice, no one had ever, ever asked such a question. A lifelong struggle and silencing which has made questions like mine seem like un-understandable concepts. Also the complete lack of education and a life of child labour greatly diminishes their intellectual and vocal ability.
I thought of my village children, although they are ‘just’ literate, this alone has somewhat enhanced their curiosity and their ability to explain things beyond physical tasks. In talking to these young women, I realised two things: First, the absolute necessity of even basic education for brain development and second, the absolute necessity of agency training for the effective empowerment of women. The second point is very relevant as its one of the team tasks in the village in March. We are examining the feasibility of a cooperation with a US academic institution on the premise that women taught agency (the ability to make decisions, speak out, understand themselves) can make them more successful after vocational training. Today’s sobering experience brought home to me the reality of just how essential such pre work is for the empowerment of oppressed women.
United for Hope, Tara