Thursday, August 16, 2018

Answers, anyone?

Shehzad drives an auto-rickshaw in Bhopal and has a daughter in school. Last year all the children were asked to open a bank account through the school, which he did by providing them the necessary documents. A sum of Rs. 400 per year is to be transferred by the Government into each student's SBI account for purchase of school uniforms. The money was transferred and the full amount immediately deducted by the bank as penalty for not maintaining a minimum balance required for a metropolitan bank branch. In spite of repeated requests by Shehzad that he does not have the money to keep two bank accounts running (one his own and one joint with his daughter), and that he had not asked for the second account, the money has not been refunded.

Sheila works as a domestic help and lived in Bhopal till last year when she moved with her husband to Bairagarh when her slum was demolished as part of the city's replanning. Her son has joined a school there and the teacher wanted a bank account opened in her son's name through the school. Now the boy's identity documents are all from Bhopal - birth certificate and Aadhar card. So are hers and her husband's. They own no ration card. The teacher refuses to open the account saying a bank account cannot be opened till they show proof of living in that locality, ie in Bairagarh. As the family is squatting on some land near a forested area, they have no address there. Sheila said she does not need her son to have an account and will do without the Rs. 400 assistance annually, but the teacher will not hear of it - every child must have the account she insists. And Sheila says she is helpless as the son was born and the Aadhar card made when they were in Bhopal. Things are at this stand-off now.

Meanwhile Chintamani in Hyderabad is unable to get her granchildren into a Government school as they do not have an Aadhar card and the school refuses admission without one. Her son is an alcoholic, not bothered about the family, the daughter-in- law and she work from dawn to dusk as domestics to keep the house going. Meanwhile the grandchildren, 5 and 6, are out of school. I thought no services or facilities were to be denied for want of an Aadhar card till the Supreme Court gives its decision, but the Government school authorities think otherwise. Or am I mistaken?

Anyone with any answers for these parents, please write in.


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Two men

Patients attending the clinic yesterday at the 90 foot road in L ward of Bombay came with a variety of complaints. One woman probably had malaria and looked sick. A man with hypertension and heart disease; one with chemical dermatitis due to working with paint; several with skin infections. All of them looked tired and were thin, most wore clothes blackened by the grease and dirt at their workplace, most had calloused hands and grimy fingernails. But Vishal (name changed) looked unlike the others. Fresh-faced, very  young, clean, he had come to Bombay from Bahraich district in Uttar Pradesh 2 months ago after his 12th standard examinations to join his brother in the Kajupada slum, to earn Rs.7000 a month for working 12 hours a day and sometimes longer.
I asked him why he left his studies and came here, and also why for such a low wage. He looked at me in silence for a few seconds, and then said his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed weekly injections (chemotherapy, perhaps), each of which cost them Rs. 10,000. There was, simply put, no  Government facility nearby where they could access free cancer treatment, so they had to travel over 300 km to the Kamala Nehru Trust Hospital in Allahabad for treatment. There was no money, so Vishal had to stop thinking of applying for college, and travel to Bombay to earn what he could to pay for the treatment, along with his brother. 
The cancer is disseminated, he told me  - his mother had not told anyone about it till the festering wound became too much to conceal. 
I explained as gently as I could that for someone to survive disseminated breast cancer is not easy. And told him that whatever happens, he must try and go back to studying as soon as he can. 

I wonder if he will ever be able to. 

Last night, traveling home from the airport in Bhopal, I asked the driver, a young man, where he was from. He had come to Bhopal three months ago from Ashoknagar where he had been with a travel agency for three years. The owner had eleven cars. When I asked why the move, he said he had had a quarrel with the owner. I did not ask anything more, but then Sushil (name changed) told me what had happened. He had not been paid for two months, he said and when he had asked for his wages, the owner had laughed and said he did not need the money urgently as he was not married. 
I kept begging him for two months, said Sushil - I had my rent to pay, I had to eat, I was supporting my family. When he did not pay me for the third month, I was very angry . When I was driving him somewhere, I stopped the car, pulled him out, and hit him. I hit him with a stone on his head, then with a stick on his back, then I ran away.  
How is the owner now? I asked after a few minutes. 
He got up and drove himself home, and lodged a police complaint. I had to go to Ashoknagar two days ago to appear in court. I explained to the judge what had happened, and the judge said I should have lodged a complaint, not beaten the owner. The next hearing is six weeks from now. 
I told him the same thing- that beating up someone is not the answer, that next time he loses his temper he may kill someone and that will land him in jail. 
Sushil told me he is from Rewa district, his father was a contract labourer for the railways and died suddenly of a heart attack some years ago. He is the oldest and has to provide for the family. From his wage of Rs. 10,000 a month in Rewa he had to support his mother and siblings. When he was not paid, he had to beg the owner of the rented room where he stayed, not to throw him out. He felt ashamed to do this, as well as for the fact that he was not able to send money home. He himself ate once in three days, and survived on cups of tea in between. 
Now in Bhopal he earns Rs. 12,000 a month as a driver, and has taken a one-bedroom flat on rent in a multi (Government built multi-storied houses). The multis have a parking space where he and 12 other drivers keep their cars at night and the colony has a security guard arrangement, so the cars are safe. He is delighted with the running water and electricity, though he has to spend Rs. 2500 on rent each month. His home is open to anyone who comes to Bhopal from Rewa  for Government work or looking for a job. 
Why should they spend money on staying at a hotel when they can ill-afford it? he asked. I can help them this way. At present he has a family of four from Rewa staying in his flat - The woman has a preterm baby (7 months) and they have come to Bhopal for the child's treatment. They need to be here for at least 2 weeks, and I have given them the key to my flat - they can come and go as they please, and cook their own food. 

Would you judge this young man?

 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

A tale of two migrants in Surat

Ramesh Kumar (name changed) is 19, and from Panna district in Madhya Pradesh. His high school certificate states he is Ramesh Kumar Lodhi.  Two years ago, after passing his 12th standard examination, he came to Surat and found work in a factory that makes razais with synthetic fibre. He works one of the machines that produces the fibre, which is then sucked away through a pipe and taken to where the razais are made. 

Fibre produced by the machine is sucked into the pipe seen at bottom right.

On 20th December last year, he was trying to clear out the mouth of the pipe that was clogged with fibre, when his right hand was caught in the machine, as a result of which he has lost all fingers of that hand. The owner refused to pay him any compensation for his injury. I met him two days ago, when he told me he had gone to the Civil Hospital in Surat for a disability certificate but was denied it as his Aadhaar card says he is Ramesh Kumar but does not state his caste. This, despite his Aadhaar card being made in Surat. Ramesh already has an Aadhaar card in in his hometown in Panna district, but like many migrants, he has another one in the city where he works, as otherwise he has no access to any service, including a job, a bank account, or a local SIM card for his phone. (So much for the unique ID of Aadhaar!). Here, though, in spite of having a local Aadhaar card, he was denied the certificate as it did not carry his caste name. When I met him and his father - both are severely underweight - they were still in shock at the turn his life has taken.( The Medical Superintendent agreed to issue a certificate, but only after the Aadhaar card can be validated against another ID proof).

Like Ramesh Kumar, Subhash Gouda (name changed) was also a migrant,though he had moved to this city ten years ago from Ganjam district in Odisha, working in one of the many powerlooms here, producing synthetic textiles. Working twelve hour shifts with no days off, living in crowded conditions, on a poor diet, he was one of the many thousands drawn by the need for a livelihood. He developed tuberculosis and had begun treatment in Odisha, but found it impossible to continue medication here - was it paperwork? was it the time needed to access services? - after working the night shift for 12 hours in deafening noise, most workers sleep the whole day and wake up only in the late evening when the Government hospitals are shut for the day. Those in the day shift start work at 7 am and come out of the loom sheds only at 7 pm - again with no time to go to the hospital. his wife told us that he wanted to get better and each time he was home (once a year), he would start treatment, but it would stop once he when to Surat. As expected, he got sicker and sicker and yesterday developed sudden breathlessness. He was rushed to the hospital where he died within the hour, and was cremated soon after. He was 28 years old.

I saw a photograph of him laid out on a stretcher after his death. A young pale face with straight hair falling over his forehead. I wondered how many thousands and hundreds of thousands like him live and suffer and die, far away from home and family. And thought of his wife and children in Odisha who will never see him again.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The nowhere people of Sewage Basti

Along a narrow strip of land between the sewage treatment plant and a canal of the Sabarmati river on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Google earth shows some shadows for about 2 kilometres. If you get to this place on foot, you find it is actually sand dunes, with about a thousand migrants living there for 9 months in the year. They are tribals from Dahod district in Gujarat and from Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh and working as construction workers on daily wages. This settlement is called Sewage basti.
Sewage basti, ringed in red, on the sand strip between the sewage treatment plant and the canal. Sabarmati river seen in bottom half where the froth of water foam from the plant enters.         
When a small group of us visited the settlement at 10 am on a chilly morning last week, several people are returning, walking along the sand dunes after having failed to find work that day. A metro line is coming up on the other side of the canal, and some find work there; others have to go further to a naka, or crossroads and auction the only asset they own: their physical strength. They are adults, teenagers, youth in their twenties, younger children, babies in arms. They sit on the dunes, warming themselves in the sun. 

We meet a group of people in what passes for a street on the sand. This community from Jhabua lives here for nine months in the year, and gets no services. No one visits them here, so our visit generates interest. They are faceless citizens of India here: no services reach them, and not even the police visit to demand their hafta as they do in so many other places. The women get no care during pregnancy: when they are 8 months pregnant they stop working and go back to their village in Madhya Pradesh to deliver their babies. Depending on how long they remain there, their babies may receive two doses of vaccines, or more, or less. The women themselves are unimmunized. The children are all illiterate, having never been to school. Some among the youth have studied up to Standard 5 before they began this life as migrants. With no official identity here, they cannot apply for any benefits at all. During the three months they return home, there is no work for them, they say - perhaps some work as agricultural labourers if they are lucky.

On the days they get work, everyone leaves for the worksite - the older children look after the younger ones, and those a little older help in construction work. 
Some of the Sewage basti migrants from Jhabua who could not get work that day. Behind the group is a house under construction.

Their homes are flimsy, made of branches of the babool that grows there, bent semicircular and embedded in the sand, covered with sheets of polythene. If sufficient polythene cannot be obtained, a thin blanket is used as a substitute.
Homes at the Sewage basti, made of tree branches, thorny twigs, polythene bags and sheets, and sometimes a blanket.


View of Sewage basti from the road. The crane in the background is where work is going on for the metro rail line.
Sewage basti is a community of nowhere people, literally living in a world of their own, and invisible to anyone else. 








Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Weekend at Karangabahla.

I spent last weekend at the CHF run hostel at Karangabahla in Jashpur district in Chhattisgarh. I was visiting it after a gap of over two years, and there were several visible changes. This hostel is run by nuns of the Convent of the Holy Family (originally from Kerala), seven kilometres outside Pathalgaon on the Jashpur road.My husband Ravi and I had gone primarily to visit Priti and Muskaan, who have been there nearly five years now.

Priti and Muskaan with their father Dev Kumar in January 2011
 For those unfamiliar with the two girls, I wrote first about them in late 2010 here and here. The story of their finally reaching Karangabahla in early 2011 is herehere, here and here. The first picture of them in their new school uniform is here, and this is the second picture I have, taken in 2013.

Karangabahla is a small village with perhaps 50 households, and the hostel is set off the road. The convent has a garden around it where vegetables are grown when water is available - these are used in the kitchen for the boarders.

The hostel that housed 42 girls three years ago has expanded to 78 boarders now, stretching the Sisters' resources for space, as well as funds for feeding and housing them.  The nuns, being sensitive to the needs of underprivileged families in the community found it hard to refuse admission to girls who have been orphaned and whose guardians say they are unable to care for them; for younger siblings of older girls already in the hostel; for very poor families who are unable to pay the boarding and lodging costs fully or partially each year. Now they cannot take in any more - depending on the number of senior girls who finish and leave the hostel, they will be able to take in that many girls only. 

In order to accommodate the additional student strength, the nuns have been allotted funds by their house to build an extension over the study room and kitchen which will have two rooms, and a toilet complex. Construction is under way, and funds will need to be found for furniture. An enclosed covered space has already been made for the girls to sleep in during the summer and to hang out their clothes. A portion of this has been enclosed fully to store blankets and mattresses in the summer months.


Thanks to generous contributions from friends and well-wishers, the boarders all have mattresses and blankets for use in winter; a new set of kitchen utensils; a small solar panel that provides solar lighting when they do their homework at night (The entire area, like large parts of rural India, has extensive power-cuts and even if the power does not fail, the voltage is often too low to read by); a generator to pump up water when the power fails or the voltage is poor; and a new toilet block. The studies of seventy of the girls are supported by others - fifty-nine from grants, and eleven from individual donations. None of the girls know who is supporting their studies and boarding, nor are the donors allowed direct, individual interaction with the student they support. Personally I think this is an excellent policy that the nuns follow.

The nuns lead simple lives, five of them live in the convent which is an extension of the hostel. They are careful to see that benefits to the hostel are not utilized by them. This small community has five nuns - one in charge of the hostel, two at the school, one for the dispensary and one in charge. The sisters who teach, as well as Sr Chaitanya (the oldest, and one who is now in charge of the hostel) supervise the homework of the children each evening. The older ones (Standards 6, 7, 8) study mostly on their own, but the younger ones need more supervision and help.

The school within the same compound is run by Diocesan priests and has upto 800 children - a mix of Yadav and Oraon children attend classes Kg to standard 8. After the 8th standard, the girls from the hostel will have to move to one of several hostels in larger towns around.

Priti and Muskaan have settled in well - probably the first time in their lives they have felt secure and been certain where their next meal is coming from. Their father calls every week from Bombay (at least, that is where we think he is). Their mother used to call them too, before she died (according to their father Dev Kumar) of a snake bite two years ago. However, they long to see their father, who has never once visited them in the five years they have been here. They watch with envy when other girls are visited by their parents, or their birthdays are celebrated with the family visiting and often bringing a small cake. No one comes to visit them, nor do they have any place to go to during the holidays. (They are from a place called Akaltara in Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh. Attempts to contact family there when the girls first joined here were met with a firm refusal to take the responsibility for two girls).

During the holidays, five other girls stay behind with Priti and Muskaan - one girl from Madhya Pradesh who is the fifth girl in the family and whom her family has virtually abandoned here; and four other girls who are orphans and whose guardians express their inability to take care of them during the holidays. They eat along with the Sisters at these times.

Muskaan and Priti outside their hostel, December 2016.


For the older girls, the dormitory is also their study.
Younger girls complete their homework in the study room.
Parents pay for the hostel and the school, though some are able to make only partial payments. Funds for food supplies are allotted partially by their order, some are donated by a few merchants in Pathalgaon, and donations (in cash or kind) are gratefully accepted.  There are four new boarders for whom financial support is sought.

The hostel is a place humming with activity when the children are back from school, and in the early mornings. They have three meals a day, have a set schedule that includes prayer, supervised study time (morning and evening), time set aside for working in the vegetable garden, for play, and for washing and bathing. Occasional picnics are organized by the Sisters to a nearby place.The children seem happy there, and in good health, and all are at the top of their class in studies.

The hostel kitchen serves lunch to 80 additional day students, both boys and girls, who are too poor to bring their own lunch. Almost of all them arrive hungry to school, sometimes after a walk of 8 or 9 kilometres.

 
Action song by the younger girls. 


On receiving their writing kit
Construction of extension wing under way.

Enclosed covered verandah for sleeping and for drying clothes.

The hostel students along with the Sisters, on the terrace of the hostel, December 2016.
The nuns welcome any kind of support to the hostel, financial or in kind - a small gift of money this winter got them all thick sweaters; the gift of a writing kit (pencil case, erase, sharpener, pencil and a box of crayons) had the students delighted. The hostel needs funds for various things - ongoing need of purchasing food supplies (the grant from their parent institution is never quite enough) and scholarship support for four more girls (needs to be ongoing for the duration of their studies in school), and benches and chairs for the study room for the senior girls in the hostel, among other things. Over the next two years, the sisters are looking at installing a solar water heating system for the hostel and convent (at present the children bathe in cold water, even in the cold of winter), as well as solar cookers for the hostel kitchen. Establishing a small library of appropriate reading material in English and Hindi is also needed. Costs are still to be worked out. 

At Christmas time each year, the Sisters organize a party in the hostel for all the children with a special treat. Last year it was scarves for the girls. This year they will get a tiny jar of Vaseline each for their chapped lips. Whatever the nuns can afford to spare from their budget that year determines the gift. 
Playing with balloons during the Christmas party, 2015.
At the end of a year that had little to cheer about, the visit to Karangabahla raised our spirits immeasurably. It is an ongoing tale of hope, of giving poor families the opportunity of a safe space to educate their girls; of empowering these girls and young women for a better future. In this tiny corner of Chhattisgarh, the nuns are quietly doing a remarkable job.

Friday, September 23, 2016

East and West - a slice of Odisha in Gujarat

Surat is a bustling, prosperous city, known for its diamond cutting and polishing industry, as well as for the largest production of man-made fibre in India. It has one of the largest wholesale textile markets in the country, and has thousands of powerloom units for production of cotton and synthetic textiles.
Surat the textile city, by night.

Last Sunday, I was given a glimpse into a part of what makes this city the capital of India's textile industry.


Raju's Dance Academy in Meena Nagar
Meena Nagar is one the areas where powerloom mills abound. Its busy streets and narrow lanes are all bustling with activity - with no women to be seen. This is one of the hubs of migrant workers from Odisha - an estimated 700,000 of them in the textile sector alone.

Raju (name changed), who shows us around, wears jeans and a full-sleeved T-shirt. He is thin and wiry, with bright eyes and a cheerful smile. He is also from Odisha, and proudly points out his shop on the first floor of a larger building. This is the Realy Dance Academy which he runs and says is doing well. (It teaches hip-hop, Bollywood, Canterbury, Kathak, Break, Step-up, Fri Style, Sambalpuri, Classical, Pop and Bebop). He moved to this after he saved up some money working on the looms. He was fortunate not to have family members needing support and is one of the very few who could move out of working on the looms at a young age. He is most probably a second generation migrant in his family - many migrants have brought their families here and settled down, creating a mini Odisha, complete with Oriya schools and cinema theatres showing Oriya films.

We first go to see the "mess" where the loom workers live - one is through a narrow dark , damp corridor, up three flights of crumbling, sometimes slippery, narrow stairs with no railing to hold on to. At each landing is a smelly toilet overflowing with water (and perhaps worse), which sometimes drips onto the landing below. The smell is overpowering and nauseating.

On the third floor we enter the kitchen where enormous quantities of rice and daal are being cooked. I see no signs of any vegetables other than potatoes and onions. The mess in charge is here, who manages the kitchen as well as the facilities for the migrants - water and electricity and the rent. The building is rented by him from the owner. He charges Rs. 2200 per month from each man for stay, and for the meals. The floor above the kitchen is where the workers live - over a hundred of them in a room barely 100x40 feet in dimensions. There are no windows to this room. Clothes lines criss-cross across the room, sagging beneath the weight of wet and dry clothes. Along the wall are tin trunks and rexine bags holding the belongings of the men who live there. Several are fast asleep, but about a dozen gather around us to talk. They have just completed a 12 hour shift in the looms, and have had a bath. They will now eat and sleep for most of their shift off. For entertainment they watch movies loaded onto their cellphones in nearby shops for a small fee.

They are all from Ganjam district in south Odisha, and are surprised and pleased to know that I know the language, and that I have lived in Ganjam for four  years.They range from 18 to about 45 and have worked here from five to twenty five years and more. They say the work is tough - 12 hour shifts with no days off; no sick leave or leave to go home to Odisha. They go at their own cost once or twice a year, not earning when they are away. Each month they send some money home through small shops that facilitate money transfer through banks. These shops charge a steep Rs. 25 per Rs. 1000 that they need to send home, but it is convenient for the workers to hand over money to these entrepreneurs. The banks are reluctant to keep transacting small amounts of cash each month from the worker to their account in Odisha. Besides, most are asleep during banking hours.Still, the pay here is better than what they would earn at home. A novice is paid around Rs. 8000.00 per month after he has spent some months learning the job (when he is not paid at all, but usually a senior family  member who is already working on the looms looks after him). More experienced workers earn upwards of Rs. 15000.00 per month. I listen in silence, wondering how we as a country can be utterly indifferent to how workers in our factories work and live and eat and earn.

There are many such messes in this part of the city.

Raju next takes me to see some of the looms. We go into the next street, into a series of three and four storeyed buildings which are crumbling and have not seen a coat of paint in years. The path in between the buildings is littered with knots of synthetic fibres that have been discarded after the weaving process is done. There is a steady clack-clack-clack sound emanating from the buildings, which only gets louder as we draw closer. Visiting one of the powerlooms takes a fair amount of negotiation with the supervisor who checks with the owner that he has been informed of our visit. Finally we are allowed in.

The noise inside is deafening and throbs through you, as well as through the floors and walls of the building. The building seems to be vibrating too, and I wonder whether it will collapse on our heads - it seems decrepit enough. On the floor are a row of powerlooms, each with a red light glowing as the machine works and the shuttle races back and forth across the loom between the frames. When the thread breaks, the light goes off and `the machine stops. The worker then has to restore the thread and start the machine again. Each worker monitors twelve looms. We can barely hear ourselves speak as the noise of the looms drowns out all sound - indeed, all thought as well.
Thread being wound onto the spindles for weaving.
The floor above has rows of machines which wind the thread from large reels onto the spindles that will then be used in the looms.

I tried to discreetly record a few seconds of the sound inside the loom - a bad recording with my low-end cellphone, trying to keep my clothes from getting caught in the machinery. To get an idea of what it is like, play this sound clip on the maximum volume your device will allow. The sound is much, much louder than this.


Twenty minutes inside the powerloom shed and we came out with our ears ringing and a temporary deafness. What does it do to people standing there for twelve hours every day, day after day, week after week, month after month without a break? Noise induced hearing loss for sure; stress due to the long hours and the high level or noise (Powerlooms typically generate 90-100 db of noise, whereas city traffic noise level is about 85db, and ordinary speech is 55 db). Every 10 db increase means a doubling in loudness. At the noise levels in powerlooms, and working for twelve hours at a stretch, hearing loss is guaranteed. Additionally, noise induced stress as well as inability to concentrate are well known.

All the powerloom sheds have officially less than ten employees, thus keeping them out of the purview of the Factories Act where certain rights and privileges of the worker are guaranteed by law. Most of these workers are in the informal sector, vulnerable to exploitation by the employer.

Power looms like these are also now struggling to keep up with the competition provided by more efficient water jet looms and newer designs of looms. Hence the lack of investment in upkeep (apart from the minimum to keep the machines running), and the reduction in the workforce (where earlier one worker tended to four machines, now each worker looks after twelve looms), in an effort to cut costs.

I left Raju at his Academy after visiting three powerloom sheds and two messes, marveling the hope and joy in youngsters who have enrolled in his dance academy, even living in this environment of displacement across the country for hard work, poor living conditions, and even poorer wages. I feel angry and depressed too.

Driving back to the hotel, the glittery buildings and the flyovers of Surat are not so impressive any more.







Sunday, May 1, 2016

Uttarakhand diary

Forest fires between Ramgarh Malla and Bhimtal
Smoke rises from fires near
Sitla

The mountains are on fire. Literally. I was in Nainital district for a week, and smoke haze lay thick in the air. Driving up from baking hot Kathgodam last Saturday afternoon, the driver Dinesh tells me the Gaula river running past the town has been dry for some weeks now, and each year there is less and less water in it. Our destination is a village called Khansyu in Okhalkanda block in Nainital district. The normal route is past Bhimtal, but Dinesh seeks an alternative, longer route as the Bhimtal road is blocked, and there are many fires along the Bhimtal road.


I try to ease my nausea induced by the numerous hair-pin bends by lying down in the rear seat of the taxi, but it not helped by the acrid smell of wood smoke. In some places the smoke smells of pine. We drive past tree trunks charred and still burning.

The dry river bed of Gaula river near Khansyu
Khansyu is in a valley in Okhalkanda block. The Gaula river flows at the base of the valley, and is completely dry. This is the river that supplies water to Kathgodam. Nain Singh, the local co-ordinator of the project I am visiting, tells me that in the six years that he has been here, this is the first time it has run dry.

The place is beautiful, layers and layers of mountains all around. That evening, though, I see a fire creeping up the hill opposite. I cannot see other fires, but I know they are there. The next morning, the valley is full of a smoke haze.


A fire creeps up the hill near Khansyu
Smoke haze in the valley at dawn.
The reason for the fires are discussed locally - was it the locals who tried to burn the grass? Was it the dry winter with no rain at all? Is it the pine forests that help to spread this fire far and wide? Some blame the pine (an import by the British) for it all, saying it depletes ground water, does not allow other trees to grow, and that it is highly flammable.

There is a terrible water shortage in Khansyu and the villages around, and indeed all over Nainital district. Water is guarded jealously, and having your water tank emptied in the night is not unusual. During the week I was there, water was supplied twice.




Driving back to Kathgodam on Friday, we cross large tracks of mountainside that have already burnt out - blackened tree trunks (some still smoking), an eerie silence with no bird calls, no crickets chirping, and an overall bleakness. Would the earth look like this after a nuclear holocaust, I wonder - such total desolation?

Closer to Bhimtaal we see and hear fires again, and just a few kilometers before Kathgodam I spot large areas of mountainside that have been sheared clear of trees and dirt. Landslides during the monsoons last year, Dinesh tells me. They stand out as ugly white streaks many metres wide, against the brown and green of the mountainside, ending in a pile of boulders at the bottom of the valley.

The mountains are achingly beautiful, but how long can we preserve them that way?

5 pm: Just received the sad news that Nain Singh's landlord died on Saturday, trying to save people of his village when the fire threatened to engulf their homes. He sustained 80% burns and was taken to the hospital in Haldwani, but could not be saved.