A story that perfectly sums up the idiom “age is just a number”

A few days back, when Sapna Sharma, 57, walked into the office of DroneAcharya Aerial Innovations, a Pune-based drone services and pilot training startup, she felt like a child entering a school for the first time in life. This is Sharma’s very first job; her first baby steps into the professional world. Her workplace happens to be a start-up, a space that is dominated by the young. And yet, the organisation welcomed her on board. There’s a reason such stories need to be told. While we have women who have managed to break the glass ceiling, for many, career takes a backseat after marriage or children. Many choose to take a step back as responsibilities multiple or because they don’t get any help or support from families and many fail to open their innings. We need more workplaces like DroneAcharya that promote age diversity and give women of all ages a chance

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When fifty-seven-year-old Sapna Sharma was asked by the management of DroneAcharya Aerial Innovations, a Pune-based startup that works in the drone space, if she would like to join the workplace, she did not immediately say yes. She went back home and thought about it for two days. Her apprehensions were justified. Sharma has, as they say in the corporate world, no work experience.

Earlier this year, she, along with her husband Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Sunil Sharma, 60, moved to Pune after he was hired by DroneAcharya to join as President, Business and Strategy. Sharma accompanied her husband to the office one day when she was asked if she would like to join as Admin Executive. She was told that the startup would benefit from her life experiences and each team member would be happy and willing to help her integrate into the system.

“I eventually said yes and joined soon after. I think it’s never too late to start something and there is no age to learn new things. The fact that my husband also works in the same office and the management was motivating, encouraging, and welcoming helped me arrive at the decision. It’s been just a few days, but I am glad I said yes to the offer,” said Sharma.

The beginning of her journey

Born in Alwar, Rajasthan on September 18, 1965, Sharma completed her schooling in Jaipur and Jodhpur. In 1985, she completed a course in textile designing and got married in 1988.

“As my husband was in the Army, we had to relocate every two years. Some of the cities and states we have lived in include Sikandrabad, Chandigarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Mau (Madhya Pradesh), Mathura, Ambala, and Jalandhar. Because we were constantly on the move, I could never start my professional journey. You can say that I never tried. So, this job for me is like how a child goes to school for the first time in life,” said Sharma.

Sharma was 36 when her daughter Sweekriti was born and after that, her life revolved around her daughter.  

Bidding adieu to the Army, moving to Mumbai, Pune

Her husband took a premature retirement from the Army in 2006 and the family moved to Mumbai. Sharma’s husband took up a job with the Mahindra Group where he headed two verticals until he retired at 60 in March this year.

“Soon after he got an opportunity to work with DroneAcharya, so we moved to Pune. While we have some relatives and some wonderful friends here, it still felt like starting afresh. My daughter, now 21, is away in Bengaluru pursuing a course in filmmaking. My husband got busy with his new job, but it used to bother him that I used to be all alone at home. One day I accompanied him to his workplace when during a casual chat the management made this offer to me,” said Sharma.      

New innings: Joining a workplace at 57

While Sharma’s husband and daughter always encouraged and motivated her to work, somehow it never happened.

“It was for this reason I needed two days to think. Since I have never worked, especially in a corporate setup, I have been very out of touch. But because the management and my husband were very supportive, I decided to give it a try and give my best,” said Sharma.

How did she feel on the first day of the job?

“Well, I was very nervous, but, at the same time, I was very excited. Everyone was very helpful and welcoming. It wasn’t a very hectic day. I met the team and told everyone that they will have to treat me like a new kid in the class and teach me everything. Since that day everyone has been very kind and helpful,” she said.

When she decided to take up the job, the person who was the happiest was her biggest cheerleader, her daughter.

“I felt very proud. I have always encouraged her to work. In her case, going out and working was never a problem. However, there had been a long gap and after a point, she did not know where to start or what to do. When she got the offer, even before saying she was going to start working, she said she was going to start learning. So, she was very positive about it, and hence all we had to do was to give her support,” said Sharma’s daughter Sweekriti.   

“If your attitude is right, if you are ready to make an effort, and if you are willing to try, there is nothing you can’t do. She did have her apprehensions. While we were deliberating, she said she was hesitating a bit because she had no work experience and everyone in the team was very young. But those apprehensions were short-lived. She was willing to learn and give it a try,” said her husband, Mr Sharma.  

He added: “It would be wrong to say that she has never worked. For all these years, she has been managing the house, managing us, and making our lives so beautiful. Shifting cities and starting afresh, managing finances, all this is a lot of work. It requires great managerial and finance management skills. She has the skills; she now just needs to apply these in the corporate ecosystem. I must say she is a quick learner. Just two days back, all of us were casually discussing that she finishes her admin tasks in two hours, so now maybe we can give her additional responsibilities!”   

After so many years of being at home, Sharma was used to function at a particular pace. After joining the workplace, she had to quickly adapt to a new routine.

“While it’s too early for me to comment on the concept of work-life balance, but my routine has changed. That’s fine. It’s all about making some adjustments. I go with my husband and come back with him, and we get the weekends off, so it’s working fine,” said Sharma.  

Promoting age diversity at workplaces

At a time when boardrooms are getting younger with the start-up culture catching up, most companies prefer hiring young employees. Workplaces giving a fresh start to 40-plus or 50-plus is truly rare. In such a scenario, this move by DroneAcharya, of giving a chance to someone like Sharma, who is close to an age when most people choose to hang up their boots and who has no prior work experience, is truly worth applauding.

When asked to comment, Prateek Srivastava, founder and managing director, DroneAcharya, said: “She is starting her first innings at the age of 57. Her experienced outlook will surely add an interesting flavour to our work culture.”

Talking about age diversity at DroneAcharya, he said: “We foster an atmosphere that is very inclusive and welcoming of people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Every single one of our employees is valued and given the same number of opportunities as the rest. While a younger workforce may provide fresh perspectives and energy, a more seasoned staff is necessary for setting long-term goals and creating a diverse and welcoming workplace. They also advise and play mentors to the younger employees.”

Commenting on age diversity, Sharma said, “It feels good to see people of all age groups working under one roof and towards the same set of goals.”

Her husband, who joined the start-up at 60, said: “In the new scheme of things, people want to achieve more in a short span of time, so they work for 18-20 hours a day and burn out very fast. In the culinary world, there is a concept called slow cooking. It’s often said some dishes turn out exceptionally well when they are cooked for a longer duration on a very low flame. Similarly, people like us who have been working for years or decades, have the wealth of knowledge and experience. So, our contribution is extremely valuable to any company.”   

Giving women of all ages a chance

While promoting age diversity is an important factor, it is equally important for workplaces to give women of all ages a chance. There are many examples around us wherein women have had to give up on their careers for various reasons. Some are not able to, or are not allowed to, work after getting married, for some a maternity break or having children comes in the way of building a long-term career. There are also women who get no help and support from home and quit because they get burnt out. Women often find it extremely difficult to find a job after these unavoidable breaks in their careers. It’s important for workplaces to give women of all age groups a chance because a career break does not make them less able, talented, or efficient.

When asked to comment, Sharma said: “It depends on person-to-person and situation-to-situation why women work, or they don’t. But I firmly believe there is nothing that a woman can’t achieve and there is no age to achieve something. Hence employees should not be discriminated against based on their gender. Women, of any age, are as valuable to a company as the men.”  

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post. If you want us to tell your story, write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com

Today, on World Diabetes Day, you may want to read this interview 

As per the Indian Council of Medical Research’s September 2022 report, India is home to 77 million diabetics, the second highest in the world. Yet, the unfortunate truth is, we know very little about it. This, according to Jazz Sethi, 26, founder and director of The Diabesties Foundation, is because we tend to generalise diabetes. In this interview with The Good Story Project’s Swati Subhedar, Sethi, a Type 1 Diabetic (T1D), elaborates on how those living with diabetes, especially T1D, often struggle to deal with the endocrinological, physical, physiological, emotional, mental, psychological, and financial aspects that come along as package deal. We also touched upon a range of other topics, including the insulin monopoly, the need to educate individuals living with diabetes as well as their families and caregivers and provide them with multidimensional support, and the massive role organisations like hers are playing to fill in the gaps in our broken healthcare system until major policy level changes are implemented by the government.

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Jazz Sethi, a resident of Ahmedabad, was 13 when she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). She was a midfielder in her school football team, and they were practicing for an upcoming tournament. During that time, she complained of feeling excessively thirsty and was losing weight. It was assumed it was because of her gruelling schedule. She underwent a blood test. A few hours later, the doctors advised her parents to rush Sethi to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Her blood sugar was at 1050mg/dL (normal blood sugar for a teenager is in the range of 19-50mg/dL). 

That report changed her life and from that day, her life revolved around constantly keeping a tab on her blood sugar and adopting many lifestyle changes. It took her a decade to make peace with T1D and she launched The Diabesties Foundation. The goal of the non-profit organisation that works for “awareness, advocacy and access” is to make “every person with Type 1 Diabetes feel heard, loved, supported and celebrated”.

In 2019, Sethi, a professional dancer, and daughter of former world billiards champion Geet Sethi and educator Kiran Bir Sethi, became the first person in the country to have a Do-It-Yourself Artificial Pancreas (DIYAP), a technology that has changed her life. She hopes it becomes a norm in the country. 

In this interview, she decodes diabetes for all of us. 

Through her venture, The Diabesties Foundation, Sethi and her team are trying to educate people about Type 1 Diabetes. They are also working with people living below the poverty line

If you have to explain T1D to a child or to a layman, how would you explain it? 

It’s very important that people understand what insulin is and the role it plays. But it’s not easy to explain it to children or those who don’t have access to education. This is how I explain it to them. One needs petrol to drive a car. The petrol of our body is glucose that we get from the food we eat. It enters our blood stream – so, blood stream is the road that our car takes. When we reach our destination, we need keys to enter our homes. That key is insulin, which is produced in the pancreas. It opens the blood stream and helps the entry of glucose (energy) in our muscles. In the case of people living with T1D, our body does not produce any insulin, so we have to take it from the outside. Managing T1D is a beautiful game of balance. How much food you need to eat, how much insulin you need to take, how much exercise you need to do, your carb count – it’s all a game of balance. 

One of the missions of your foundation is to address the wide gap in the healthcare system. What are the steps you are taking?

You need time to understand the nitty-gritty of any chronic condition, including diabetes. You live with diabetes for the rest of your life. In the case of T1D, you have to unlearn what you know about life and then re-learn in order to incorporate this condition into your life. It’s very complex. In India, we have an overburdened healthcare system. Doctors are not able to spend a lot of time with persons with T1D. It’s not just about prescribing insulin or setting the dose; the doctors need to guide them about the changes in their diet and give proper counselling not just to the person/child who has been diagnosed with T1D, but also to their families and caregivers. In India, we don’t have this kind of support system. We are trying to bridge this gap. The first step is to recognise that we have a broken system and to try and understand why it is broken. We must not blame the doctors. With 100 patients in the waiting room, they can’t spend one hour with each patient. That’s when we step in. We answer all the questions people may have and give them mental and emotional support. It is important to tell them that they are not alone because living with T1D is a difficult life to live. 

On an average, a person ends up spending anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000 per month on insulin and that’s a lot for a middle or a lower-middle class family

Talking about T1D, do we have any sort of data in India? 

Unlike in the West, we don’t have a system wherein persons living with diabetes can register themselves. So, the numbers that we have are not official and the data is very conservative. As per the JDRF, the world’s largest non-profit funder of T1D research, in India, there are more than 902,172 ‘missing people’ and an average of 45 ‘healthy years lost’ to T1D per person, if diagnosed at age 10. (Missing people is the number of people who would still be alive today if they had not died early due to complications from T1D, and ‘healthy years lost’, represents time lost to ill health, disability, or early death from living with T1D). This is in addition to the persons who are already living with T1D. 

On an average, how much does a person ends up spending on insulin every month? 

It depends on the kind of insulin you are on, but one ends up spending anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 20,000 a month. In the US, a vile of insulin will cost me Rs 2,700, and in India, I will get it for Rs 1,700. But if you look at the purchasing power, that’s a lot for middle or lower-middle class families here. And then there are those who are living below the poverty line and are diabetic. In India, we don’t have a strong public health system. Some government hospitals do provide free insulin, but it’s not a very sustainable and reliable solution. For instance, you will get insulin only if it’s in stock. Also, diabetes is not covered by insurance companies. 

“Diabetes is an umbrella term, but there are different types of diabetes and each has different pathologies and treatments. It’s always important to mention the TYPE of diabetes”

There exists a monopoly across the world with three big pharma companies controlling the entire insulin market. In India, the price of insulin has gone up consistently in the past decade. What steps is the government taking to deal with the insulin monopoly and to control the rising prices? 

The reason tackling high price of insulin is not a priority for the government is because insulin is already highly subsidised here. Ideally, it should be free, but because we don’t have any official data on the number of people living with T1D, it is difficult for the government to make this happen. Talking about insulin monopoly, dealing with issues like this requires sweeping policy-level changes. We don’t have any sustainable action plan. The government needs to understand that the cost of not doing anything is going to be far greater than the cost of doing something. If you don’t give persons living with T1D the basic standard of care (SOC), lot many people will have complications and they are going to end up in hospitals and occupy beds. Organisations like ours are happy to step in until some policy-level changes happen, but parallely the government too has to do its bit. We are giving free insulins, but that’s not enough. Educating them is equally important. When I talk about access, it’s not just access to insulin, it’s also about access to education, counselling, and peer support.

What is the one thing the government must do as a first step to spread awareness about diabetes? 

In India, we generalise diabetes and there is no awareness about the types of diabetes. The government should start by spreading awareness about the two main (Type 1 and Type 2) types of diabetes. If you look at any advert or any public messaging, it just says diabetes. That is where we falter right in the beginning because Type 1 and Type 2 are completely different, they have different physiologies, different pathologies, and different treatment options. The government needs to spread awareness about the specifics of the main two types of diabetes. 

The Diabesties Foundation organises Diameets across India. So, far it has organised 45 meets

Many people dealing with T1D are also those for whom arranging two meals a day is the biggest challenge. How can we help that segment of society? 

The most unfortunate reality is when arranging two meals a day is a challenge, what should your priority be — getting food on the table or getting insulin. In that case, the thing you require to live becomes something you have to think about. We work with a lot of children who are below the poverty line and their stories and struggles are a whole different league. They don’t have refrigerators at home so they can’t store insulin, the electricity fluctuates, they reuse the needles over and over again. We try to be the beacons of hope to such people.

Any chronic illness is anxiety-inducing, especially for those who don’t have access to education. How do we address the mental health needs of that segment of society? 

In India, the poor hesitate to ask questions to doctors, and they are the ones who have millions of questions. Our team of educators answers all their questions and this helps reduce their anxiety. There have been times when these sessions have lasted for two hours. There have been times when I have had to explain the same topic every single week to the same person. And it’s ok. It takes time. It’s about teaching and re-teaching the same concept until it gets absorbed in the subconscious and becomes second nature. We also cater to caregivers. Because T1D is more prevalent in children, it’s the parent who is taking care of the child. We have mothers who are absolutely burnt out and our caregiver counsellors help them out. Our aim is to help every stakeholder in this family by giving them adequate importance, support, and assurance that they are not alone. Also, language matters. We never say suffering from diabetes, we say people living with diabetes. We have our educational material translated into different regional languages so that it reaches more and more people. 

The Diabestes Foundation |Contact: 9157721309 | Email: contact@d1abesties.com

Scripting a successful start-up story from a small village in Jharkhand

In June 2020, amid the global pandemic, Kundan Mishra, who hails from a small village named Pupunki in Jharkhand, launched Custkart Merchandise with his savings. In just two years, his venture, which manufactures and sells customised t-shirts on bulk order, is clocking revenues to the tune of Rs 1.5-2 crore and has a pan-India clientele. What clicked? It was Mishra’s conviction and intention. He wanted to send across a message to the youth of Jharkhand — who often have to migrate for work or end up scrambling for government jobs back home – that entrepreneurship is also an option and one can run a successful venture even from a nondescript village like Pupunki. Mishra, 25, also wanted to be a job creator, so, on the payroll of Custkart are daily wage earners from the village who are looking for additional income or those who were working in big cities but had to return home during the pandemic. Read and share this story because it’s important to promote young entrepreneurs like Mishra who are trying to set an example.

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Swati Subhedar

The year was 2014 and the place, Pupunki village, which is about 10 kms from the steel city of Bokaro in Jharkhand. Kundan Mishra, then 17, left his haystack-roofed home and, along with his parents, arrived in Gangtok in Sikkim to join the IT engineering course at the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology. It was for the first time that someone from the village was stepping out to pursue higher education.

His mother, Rita Mishra, saw some hoardings outside the college that carried pictures of successful alumni who had made the institute proud. Mishra’s mother got emotional and told him to make it to one of the hoardings someday. Mishra promised her he would. And he did.

Right from the start of college, Mishra was clear that he would never take up a job or work under someone. The entrepreneurship bug bit him in 2016 while watching a web series with his friends. The plot of the popular web series revolved around four friends who quit their jobs to launch a start-up. The idea inspired Mishra.

The start of the entrepreneurial journey wasn’t smooth. “In 2016, three of us came up with an idea for a start-up. We got selected for an entrepreneurship event at our college, but the venture could not take off. In 2017, we conceptualised another start-up, but since we could not find investors for the same, we gave up on that in 2018.”

The same year, Mishra passed out from college, declined a Rs 8-lakh per annum placement offer, and came back to his village. His father Bidyut Mishra, who works as an ordinary contractor with the Bokaro Steel Plant, was quite upset.

Kundan Mishra (left) launched Custkart in June 2020. His brother Abhishek (right) joined him

The beginning of the journey

“After coming back, I started working on another idea. By mistake, my father got hold of some business documents and when he came to know that I was looking to launch a start-up and not take up a job, he stopped talking to me. He told me that he was disappointed as he had spent Rs 12 lakh on my education, a huge amount for a family like ours,” said Mishra.

In 2018, Mishra launched a venture called Custkart Brand. “I started the business of providing customised merchandise, like bags, mugs, and t-shirts, to customers. However, there were several issues,” said Mishra.

“I did not have any website or any source of reaching out to more customers. There were already many players in the market. Also, I would outsource the raw material and the prints, so I did not have any control over the quality. I realised that the venture did not have a long-term future, so in June 2020, I tweaked the core business idea and changed the name of the start-up to Custkart Merchandise. At this stage, my elder brother Abhishek Mishra also joined me,” he added.       

Custkart was launched from Pupunki village in Jharkhand. Within two years of its launch, it has clocked revenue in the range of Rs 1.5-2 crore

Making Pupunki the business base of Custkart

Mishra, who knows how to stitch and understands the end-to-end printing process, decided to set up a small factory unit, train a few people, and start manufacturing t-shirts. His strategy was to target colleges, universities and corporates and take up bulk orders for t-shirts.

“During events and festivals at colleges and universities, there is a need for customised printed t-shirts. Corporates too require t-shirts in bulk for events or to distribute as souvenirs. And these are bulk orders in the range of 5,000-10,000 t-shirts. I started taking up such orders. Presently, the entire process of cutting of t-shirts, the printing of t-shirts as per customer’s demand, quality check, ironing, packing, and despatch happens from our small factory and warehouse in Pupunki,” said Mishra.  

Did he not consider moving to a bigger city, a metro or to Bengaluru, which is the start-up and unicorn hub of India?

“No. I was positive about Pupunki. I realised there are several advantages of launching a start-up from a village. First, I did not have to spend a lot to set up the factory and the rents are minimal. Second, the production costs are very low. Third, in Jharkhand, we get electricity at a highly subsidised rate. Fourth, labour cost is very low, and the availability of labour is also not an issue,” said Mishra.

On the payroll of Custkart are daily wage earners from the village who are looking for additional income or those who were working in big cities but had to return home during the pandemic

Hiring locals to do the job    

At Custkart, there are two sets of employees.

“Seven of us, including me and my brother, are the permanent ones. We have the experience, so we train others. On our payroll is the entire village! When we get bulk orders for t-shirts, we send across a message on a WhatsApp group. Everyone is on that group. Depending on the number of t-shirts, we give them a time frame and the number of hours they need to put in,” said Mishra.

He added: “People drop by whenever they get the time, do their share of work, take their daily wages, and go. We ask them to do just the cutting part of the t-shirts. There is a separate team of trained members who do the printing. The t-shirts are then sent for quality check, ironing, packaging and finally, they are dispatched.”    

Some of these people are farmers, some work as carpenters or plumbers in nearby townships. What they do at Custkart, becomes an additional income for them. Some are experienced. Before the pandemic, they were working as daily wagers or contract labourers with big national and international retail brands in cities like Delhi and Bengaluru. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, some of them lost their jobs and for some, in the absence of salaries, it became difficult to live in cities. So, they came back to the village.

Custkart has something interesting lined up for the women as well.

“Presently, because our factory is in a remote location, we are not hiring women. But very soon we plan to open a 5,000 sq ft factory that will have all the facilities for women. We want to give them a safe and secure working environment. There are many women in the village who are extremely skilled and under the government’s Skill India Mission have received sewing machines. We want to make them financially independent so that the men can focus on their core job, and they won’t have to come to us for additional income,” said Mishra.    

The USP of Custkart, as per Mishra, is that it treats its customers like family

A bootstrap venture, zero marketing, word-of-mouth publicity 

Custkart does not have a website. It has not spent a penny on marketing. So, how did they manage to secure a pan-India clientele?

“We let our work speak. Initially, we targeted colleges, universities, and corporates where we had some base. People loved our professionalism, the quality of our t-shirts and our timely deliveries. They started publicising our work and we kept getting bulk orders. In fact, now things get so hectic during college annual fests that we end up working non-stop and round the clock. During the lean period, we target corporates,” said Mishra.

The one thing Mishra is extremely proud of is the robust logistical chain the start-up has adopted that ensures timely deliveries. The only requisite is airport-to-airport connectivity. Another fact he is proud of is that he has managed to get all the prestigious colleges and universities in his kitty that would earlier go to a bigger start-up based in a big city or a metro. 

Custkart is purely a bootstrapped venture. Bootstrapping is the process of building a business from scratch with minimal external capital, without attracting investment, sharing equity, or borrowing huge sums of money from banks.

“We plan to continue with our bootstrap model. In villages, people believe that once you borrow money, it’s an unending trap. We feel the same. Despite the risks taken, in the first year we managed to clock revenues of Rs 60-70 lakh. We have grown year-on-year and presently, our revenues have touched Rs 1.5-2 crore,” said Mishra.

So, what is the USP of Custkart? “We treat our customers like family. We don’t let them feel they are a part of any business dealing. Also, when we make a mistake, we acknowledge, apologise, and rectify,” said Mishra.

By launching this start-up Mishra wanted to motivate the youth of Jharkhand and encourage them to be entrepreneurs

A message for budding entrepreneurs from small towns and villages  

“We did it. Others can do it too. We live in a house the roof of which is made of haystack. We did not have any capital or source of funding. We don’t have any entrepreneurs in the family to guide us. We can’t converse in fluent English. We are very ordinary people. Yet, we did it. That was the message we wanted to send across to the youths of Jharkhand who either migrate for work or keep trying for handful of secure government jobs. We wanted to tell them that entrepreneurship is an option. A business can originate in Pupunki, and it can give a Bengaluru start-up a run for its money,” said Mishra.

And what do his parents have to say about his achievement? “Well, my father has started talking to me again. Not that he fully understands what I do, but he is happy that I am doing something! As for my mother, who has always supported me, I recently made it to a poster outside my institute. It was emotional for us,” said Mishra.

This story is a part of our series ‘Venture Stories’ in which we tell stories of ventures or initiatives that were, like us, born during the pandemic. You can read the first two stories here. If you are a pandemic venture and want us to tell your story, write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com  

Adding French to your resume will take you places

We are often told – when an opportunity presents itself, don’t be afraid of pursuing it. Sugandha Dubey Mishra did just that. Her journey from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh to now being a French educator to students from across the globe is inspiring. A translator, interpreter, and corporate trainer, she also works closely with many embassies and international businesses, where her French language skills are sought after. In this candid chat with The Good Story Project, she gives us a peak into her profession and tells us how learning French, the language of travel, tourism, literature, international businesses, and diplomacy, will open new doors for students and professionals. Read this story if you want to be inspired to follow your own passion and carve out a unique path for yourself.

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It was in the late 1990s when Sugandha Dubey Mishra was pursuing her Bachelors in Science at Agra University, she was told about French and Russian being taught at the Department of Linguistics at the University.

“When I look back, I laugh at the reason behind taking up French. They were charging just Rs 500 per semester, and I thought it was a modest amount to pay to learn something new! But I am so glad that I grabbed the opportunity. French has given me so much, but, more importantly, it has given me my identity,” said Mishra, 42.

The beginning of the journey

Mishra was born in 1980 in Jhansi, a historic city in Uttar Pradesh. The only child of her parents Giriraj Kishore Dubey and Madhuri Dubey, Mishra was born 20 years after her parents got married. Her father, a central government employee working with the Indian Railways, retired in 1995 when she was in the ninth grade. He decided to move base to Agra, a tourist destination around 200 kms from Jhansi, so that his daughter could have better opportunities.

Mishra was academically a brilliant student and after completing her plus-two, joined Agra University. While pursuing her Masters in Zoology, Mishra, then 17, decided to take up a job at a school to support her father financially.

“It was the school principal who told me about French and Russian being taught at the university. I surprised myself when picked up French so well that topped the university and scored 99.9%. My professor suggested that I move to Hyderabad to learn advanced French at a prestigious institute. Being the only child, I could not have relocated so far from my parents. Agra is a tourist destination and many of my friends were working as interpreters and translators, but that did not appeal to me. So, I decided to move to Delhi instead, join Alliance Française and take up a two-month course in French,” reminisces Mishra.

Small steps, big changes

Mishra excelled in that course as well and the institute offered her a scholarship to pursue an advanced course. “I could not let go of that opportunity. However, living in Delhi meant I had to take up a job to pay for my expenses. I rented a house in Noida and started working with a digital marketing company. I would wake up every day at 4:30 AM, reach Alliance Française, which was in South Extension in Delhi, about 15 kms from Noida, by 7: 25 AM. Then at 9:15, I would rush to my office and at night I would go back to Noida. Back in the 1990s, commuting in Delhi wasn’t easy, especially for girls, and Noida was not as swanky as it is today,” recalls Mishra.  

All her hard work paid off.  The institute offered Mishra, who was just 21 then, a job at the French embassy. “It was a proud moment for me. In the 1990s, medical and engineering were top career choices and my father wanted me to become a doctor. But I told him that I did not have the energy to dedicate an additional 5-6 years to academics,” says Mishra.

Mishra still remembers what her father told her. “He said you are all that we have, and we have put in a lot of hard work to get you to this point, so no matter what you do, make us proud. For me, the job at the embassy was that moment. However, there was a catch. For the first posting, I had to go to France. My parents, who were senior citizens, were not very comfortable with the idea of sending me all the way to France, so I had to put that dream on hold. I do wonder sometimes how different my life could have been had I moved to France, but I harbour no regrets,” she says.

Marriage, motherhood

Mishra continued to work in Delhi and joined a very reputed event management firm. In 2005, when she was 24, she got married and moved to Indore.

It is here when her life story would sound familiar to many women. Especially those who find that their careers take a back seat when they get married, and more so when they experience motherhood.

The next three years were like a roller coaster ride for Mishra. A year after getting married, Mishra’s daughter was born, however, the same year she lost her mother to cancer. The next year, her father passed away.

“Those years were tough, however, my husband encouraged me to start teaching French at home. The journey started with just one student. After my son was born, we moved to a township in Indore, and that shift brought along many opportunities for me. Many children, who were studying in reputed schools in Indore, and had French as one of the subjects, lived in the township. I started taking tuition at home,” says Mishra.

French all the way

Over the years, until the pandemic hit, Mishra taught French to many students and took up numerous projects and assignments with different embassies across the world. She worked with various firms and international businesses as a translator and an interpreter, and also as a corporate trainer. During the pandemic, when everything switched to online, it gave Mishra an opportunity to widen her horizon. Today, her students are spread across the globe in countries like Dubai, the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Canada, and India. Presently, she has more than 70 students under her fold.

Talking about why one should learn French, Mishra says: “Well, it’s spoken across five continents, 89 countries and is the official language in 29 countries. It is also one of the six languages of the United Nations as well as the Red Cross and the European Union and it’s the most learned language after English.”

The many advantages of learning French

Mishra is passionate about French, and for good reasons: “I can safely say that learning French will enable you to have a very secure and lucrative career. One that will take you places.”

She lists down some of the benefits of learning French. “On an average, one gets paid Rs 18-19 per word for French to English translations and interpretations. If you know French, you can get a job with any embassy in the world. You can be a French teacher or a lecturer. For those who are planning to study in universities across France, knowing the language would help them get good scholarships and campus grants. For instance, one of my students who went to study luxury management at Sorbonne University in Paris, got a good scholarship because she is fluent in French. Even those who want to work as lawyers, medical professionals, or software engineers in countries like Canada, where French is the official second language, knowing even basic French can boost your profile. So yes, if you are passionate and efficient, then after learning French, the sky is the limit.”

She adds that many creative fields like filmmaking and animated films also need professionals knowing French for services like subtitling and voice-overs. Also, French is a bridge between English and other European languages. So, if you want to learn any other language after learning French, it will be easier for you.

Learning French was indeed something unusual back in the 1990s. But how open are today’s parents in letting their children pursue a career after learning French? “Things are changing, and parents are more accepting if their children want to learn French and also pursue a career in it. Besides, there are many professionals now who know French and so they can guide those who are learning the language now. There was no one to guide us back in the day,” says Mishra.

(Left) Mishra’s husband Rakesh Mishra, a banker, motivated her to start teaching French. (Right) Her daughter Ishna, 17, is learning French and is keen to take it up as a profession. Also seen in the picture is Mishra’s son Anadya, 8

Dearth of good teachers

The only issue, however, according to Mishra, is the manner in which French is taught in schools. “Many schools across the country, not just in the metros, but even in Tier I and Tier II cities, encourage students to learn French. However, we don’t have many good teachers. In most schools, teachers are teaching because French is part of the curriculum. They don’t tell them the benefits of learning the language and how it can help them in the future. It happens many times that those students who are good at French later don’t know how to make use of this added skill. Gradually, they forget and then all the efforts go down the drain,” says Mishra.  

Mishra’s future plans include tackling this one important aspect. “I plan to conduct professional workshops across schools so that children understand how learning the language will help them in the future. It will really help the way they will approach learning the language if they know why they are learning it in the first place. Also, I am working on having a website of my own,” says Mishra.

Apart from her usual projects, Mishra also dabbled in French storytelling. While talking about the scope of the same, Mishra says we will have to wait for some more time before French podcasts, storytelling or poetry recitations become a norm. “We are gradually getting there, but we are not ready yet. These things are still in the preliminary stages in the country,” she says.

Lastly, being a pro, is there any tip that she would like to give to those who are learning French presently? “All students face a peculiar problem. Because they are also learning English grammar simultaneously, it can get a tad confusing. Sometimes, it’s amusing for me when even adults and professionals try to apply the logic of English grammar to French grammar and end up getting frustrated! I keep telling them that now that you are learning French, put your English grammar in a sack and throw it away!” says Mishra.

Sugandha Dubey Mishra lives in Indore. If you wish to get in touch with her, you can send her an email at sugandhadubey@yahoo.com.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post. If you want us to tell your story, write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com

“Like” it or not … social media may affect your mental health. Use it wisely

Have you felt depressed after seeing a friend’s holiday pictures on Facebook? Do you feel the urge to go to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram multiple times in a day just to check how many likes your picture, post, or any form of content that you have put out has got, and do you feel depressed if the hits are below your expectations? Has it happened to you at a workplace that you have felt extremely anxious after posting something on social media fearing that it may not get enough traction? Have you gone on a downward spiral after reading negative or hate comments on your post? While it may not be difficult to deal with these emotions on a normal day, but all days are not normal. And for those who are already dealing with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, being on social media can be detrimental. However, social media platforms are powerful mediums where healthy and mature discussions around mental health issues can take place. Today is World Mental Health Day and it’s the right day to “comment” on how mental health and social media go hand in glove.

….

Swati Subhedar

On October 1, Neha Kayastha, 24, a freelance content writer, wrote a post on Facebook in which she shared the grief of one of her friend’s death by suicide. In the post, she wrote how she was in denial mode about her friend’s sudden demise and procrastinated sharing her grief for about a month. But when she could not keep her emotions bottled up any longer, she decided to write about it to get it out of her system. The intention was also to help all those on her timeline who may be feeling vulnerable and after reading her post they find the strength to talk about their struggles with their loved ones or to share them on social media.

When one scrolls through Kayastha’s Facebook timeline, one will find that along with the regular stuff that she posts, she has also been, from time to time, talking about her struggles with mental health. 

“No one has a perfect life. Everyone is dealing with something. However, we shy away from showing our weak and vulnerable side to others. It’s for this reason most people don’t share their fears, grief, and insecurities on social media. They want to be perceived as strong and are extremely careful to maintain a particular image,” said Kayastha.

She added: “When we don’t share our issues, they start affecting us, our day-to-day life, and our existence. It’s best to get these negative emotions out of our systems. Now, whether you do this by sharing your issues, insecurities, fears, sufferings, or grief by talking to your loved ones or by writing on social media, that’s a personal choice you make. The advantage of sharing your pain on public platforms or writing about how you dealt with it is that you may just end up helping someone who is feeling vulnerable or triggered and is unable to open up. By reading your post they may get the strength to talk about or write about their issues too. I feel it’s great to be strong, but it’s perfectly alright to be weak and vulnerable too.”

Watch this video made by The Good Story Project to spread awareness about mental health

Just like Kayastha, Nitin Naik, a Mumbai-based sports journalist, too chose Facebook to deal with his depression and to share his grief. Naik lost his wife, Dr Raksha Naik, to cancer in 2015. 

“Having been a fairly positive person and a happy-go-lucky guy, I very rarely used to talk about things like depression and grief, despite being aware about it. My wife’s illness though changed my entire outlook towards life and made me realise how impermanent things can get,” said Naik. 

He added: “After she passed away, the emptiness hit me after a few weeks. I started binge eating on sweets and chocolates and my weight went to 106 kgs. I started snapping at my parents, close friends and even kids and had unconsciously started talking to myself. I had even developed involuntary movements. It was noticed by my daughter.” 

A close psychologist friend suggested that Naik writes about his experiences as he was a habitual diary writer. That is when Naik started penning his thoughts on Facebook in a series titled “From Diagnosis To Death”.

“I think, for me, it became therapeutic. Because my wife had not disclosed anything about her illness to friends and relatives and had warned me as well, we were insulated from support. The series enabled me to share what we went through and allowed her friends to get a bit closer to her. Since I also wrote a lot about symptoms and signs of pancreatic cancer, I hope those reading the posts find them useful and get themselves tested when they sense something wrong.”

Posting that series helped Naik deal with the grief of losing his wife to some extent, however, writing about mental health issues on social media platforms also comes with a lot of responsibility. 

“I follow a golden rule of not tweeting or posting stuff on Facebook when I am extremely sad, angry, or depressed. My technique is slightly old school. I write down my thoughts on paper sheets and then type the draft on a word document and save it. I post it the next day. It works very well for me as I can refine and curate my emotions and thoughts,” said Naik. 

And a few pieces of advice from Naik while commenting on posts in which someone is sharing his/her grief or writing about their mental health struggles. 

“It is important to not look for validation if you are writing about grief and it is also important to not respond publicly to a negative comment about your post. Uppity advice is another thing that comes up when you post emotional stuff. Be wary about it. Also, if you are responding to a friend’s post about emotional struggles following bereavement, please do not use words like, “you must move on”, “you must be strong”, “this too shall pass”, “why didn’t you try this mode of treatment”. You only end up hurting the person even more. If you don’t know what to say or write, it is better to not do so. Social media, if used well, can be a great tool. Just be wary about not using it when you are having extreme emotional swings,” said Naik. 

While writing about grief and mental health struggles or sharing personal updates and pictures is a choice one makes, one can’t deny that social media has become an extension of our professional lives too. We are quick to share updates related to project completions, promotions, new assignments, and job switches, but most of us also share our work — for instance, a story or professional photographs or images of paintings or confectionery or handicrafts that we intend to sell — as part of marketing or promotional strategies. While social media is a great platform to do so but there is a catch. The number of likes, comments, shares, or subscribers unfortunately ends up becoming the barometer to measure the level of success. It can get stress-inducing. 

“I recently launched two YouTube channels and I use various social media platforms to promote them. While I am not denying that these platforms are a great help, but not always,” said Deepanshu Mishra, a Lucknow-based freelance journalist and founder of Deerghayu Bhav. 

He added: “When a video does well on social media, then I worry about whether similar kinds of videos would click with the viewers in the future, and when they don’t then there is added pressure. I then have to start thinking afresh. It’s a vicious cycle and it does sometimes take a toll on mental health. Sometimes I don’t get sleep at night and experience some form of depressive symptoms which I can’t explain. I go into a shell and don’t feel like interacting with anyone for days. It is tough when you are dependent on your venture for bread and butter and then traction on social media becomes a major deciding factor. I personally know some people who had to seek medical help for stress-induced anxiety.” 

While there are many young professionals across professions like Mishra who might be dealing with what he is going through, there are those who have, to some extent, understood the social media trends and do not get affected if their work does not get enough traction. 

Journalists, for instance, use social media so that their stories reach a wide audience. There is no dearth of content and stories, so “selling” a story on social media is an art. One may have written a powerful story but how you frame your Facebook post, or your Tweet may, sometimes, ends up deciding the fate of the story. Even after putting in so much effort when your work does not get enough acknowledgement in the form of likes, shares, retweets, or comments, it can be a huge demotivating factor. And if this happens repeatedly, then undue pressure gets created.

“Earlier, I used to count the number of likes and comments, but soon I realised that social media functions in a very unpredictable manner and serious stories hardly get the appreciation that they deserve. Besides, if a story gets many likes and comments, that does not necessarily mean that people have bothered to read the story. I then made peace with the fact that genuine readers will go to any length to read a story so now the likes and comments on social media do not bother me much,” said Umesh Kumar Ray, an independent journalist based in Patna.  

There are many professionals who measure success and failure based on the traction their work gets on social media which may affect their self-esteem or even mental health and then there are professionals like Tanika Godbole, who are just not bothered about likes, comments, subscribers and followers but continue to follow their heart.  

Godbole, a comic artist, started making doodles in 2017 to get out of a bad phase and randomly shared them on social media platforms. 

“I was suffering from very low self-esteem and needed a space to be more assertive and express myself without fear. When I started sharing my comics, I did it purely for myself and didn’t care about anyone else’s opinions. I was surprised that people found my work relatable and funny,” said Godbole. 

She added: “I get a lot of warm feedback for my comics on mental health. Many people tell me that the comics help them understand their social anxiety better and that they feel a little less alone after seeing the comics and comments of other people going through the same thing. My comics have helped me become a better and a confident person. They have done wonders to my mental health and given me sort of unshakeable self-esteem.”

Talking about self-esteem, in some cases, extensive use of social media may trigger comparison with others, and it can raise doubts about self-worth, potentially leading to mental health issues. 

“I joined social media around the same time I started working. One by one, my close friends started getting married, and their wedding pictures, honeymoon pictures, holiday pictures, first Diwali pictures, first new-year pictures, images of first-born, second born etc would affect me deeply. It was also the time when there was pressure on me to settle down. Seeing those ‘happy pictures’ would give me anxiety … anxiety with proper symptoms like sleepless nights, a racing heart, and palpitations. I became social media averse. Though sharing is extremely personal and well within the rights of individuals but wish we could be a bit mindful so that someone does not get affected or triggered because of what we post,” said Ruchi D, a journalist turned entrepreneur. (The contributor was not comfortable sharing her full identity). 

Not just adults, sometimes social media has an adverse impact on young children too. “The other day my daughter, 8, made a drawing and was very proud of it. She asked me to upload it on Facebook because that’s what the mothers of her friends do. Very innocently, I uploaded it without realising the impact it may have on her. My daughter was devastated when her drawing got only 12 likes in two days. So much so that she did not touch her crayons for days after that. To date I regret uploading the drawing because it took me a while to make her understand that her drawing was beautiful and the number of likes should not matter,” said Ahmedabad-based Sadhna Shukla, mother of Vedika. (Names changed).  

Young adults and teenagers are even more vulnerable. Most are on social media platforms and it’s a nightmare for the parents.

“Call me old school, but I believe in strict parenting. A parent can be friendly but can’t be a friend to children. Our daughter is 12 and is fully aware of the world around and social media tools. Many of her friends have their own handsets and social media handles. So, the pressure is already building up. Both my husband and I are very clear that we will not give her any personal gadget like a phone or an iPad till she turns 16,” said Kalpana Swamy, a communications expert based in Mumbai. 

She added: “Since she does not have her individual gadget, she is used to being with us and spends time with us. We do have our movie times shopping times and mealtimes. With regard to the perils of social media, we have our mechanism for keeping her confident of herself. My daughter is a regular pre-teen with her anxieties and insecurities, but, so far, open conversations have been helpful.”

Swamy feels there is nothing wrong in creating a fake account and keeping a tab on your child’s social media activities. It’s important because the various challenges and trends that people accept on social media platforms can turn fatal and young adults don’t have the maturity to understand the seriousness of this. 

“For instance, the Blue Whale challenge episode was a scary one. That time we were in Kuala Lumpur and my daughter had just joined an international school in 4th standard. Many of her Chinese and Malay friends had handsets of their own and Blue Whale, along with one horror game where a granny ghost comes home and kills you if you don’t follow the instructions, were topics that were widely discussed. Thankfully, the parents’ counsel intervened, and the situation was dealt with sensitively,” said Swamy.  

An experience shared by a Bengaluru-based journalist perfectly sums up why one must not believe or get affected by what one sees on “fun but fake” platforms like Facebook or Instagram. “A few years back I, along with my partner, went on a trip with some other couples. Not everyone knew everyone, but we tried our best to connect. I was particularly miffed at a guy who kept ill-treating and demeaning his wife throughout the trip. He was a control freak who did not respect his wife’s opinions. But since the girl was not reacting, I had no right to intervene. I was aghast when after the trip I saw both posting extremely happy ‘couple pictures’ from the trip. That couple is still a part of my friend circle, absolutely nothing has changed, and their happy couple pictures still pop on my timeline from time to time. It’s both, sad, and annoying. But it’s a perfect example of why one must not get affected by what one sees on social media. And if you can cut down on your time on social media, that would be better for your physical, mental, and emotional health.”

This story is a part of our series on mental health. In the series, you can read the following stories and interviews:

Jerry Pinto, Amandeep Sandhu, Shampa Sengupta, Shyam Mithiya, Anjana Deshpande, Tanika Godbole, Karishma Upadhyay and Kiranjit Kaur

The other side of the story

In October 2020, when the journey of The Good Story Project began, we published a series on people living with spinal cord injuries (SCI). Our aim was to highlight the many challenges and how those profiled in the series showed extraordinary strength and courage, embraced their disability, fought every step of the way and are not just doing well in personal and professional spheres, but are also winning medals for the country. While one may come across many success stories, very few stories delve deeper and focus on factors like the challenges of physical rehabilitation, social integration, and the high cost of living that come along with spinal cord injuries. September was spinal cord injury awareness month. We spent the month talking to people with SCIs to understand these three important aspects … aspects that no one talks about.

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Swati Subhedar    

“I run my family”.

There was a sense of pride in the voice of Chandrapu Shoba Reddy, 48, when she said this one sentence in English. I was halfway into the telephonic conversation with her, which wasn’t an easy interview to conduct.

Reddy was at her home in Kamareddy, a district in Telangana. There were network issues and because of an unavoidable time constraint, I had to finish the entire interview in 15-20 minutes. Also, I was told Reddy wasn’t well-versed in English so her daughter-in-law Sandhya, a young girl, who could speak only functional English, would act as a translator.

Sandhya called me at 9 PM. I asked her the questions in English, she would translate them in Telgu and ask her mother-in-law, who would answer in Telgu, and Sandhya would then translate the answers back to me in English.

When I asked Sandhya how the family managed financially after Reddy met with an accident and suffered a severe injury to her spinal cord nearly three decades back, it was at this point Reddy said in English: “I run my family”.    

It was in the late 1990s when Reddy, who was 22, fell from the first floor and sustained an injury to her spine. After the surgery, she was sent home. For the next 2-3 years, she was completely bedridden and dependent. The family was not informed that as a person with a spinal cord injury (SCI), she would have to go for physical rehabilitation to optimise recovery and to adapt to a new way of life. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed today.

Reddy’s husband, who was in a private job, had to resign to take care of his bedridden wife. After 2-3 years, when Reddy could move her hands a bit, she started making and selling pickles, a small-scale venture that gradually took off. It’s been 10 years that she has been selling pickles not just in India, but some of her jars have also been bought by families in the US. During the pickle season, Reddy earns Rs 25,000 a month and that’s how she runs her family.

Reddy’s journey may have come across as a smooth one. It wasn’t. None of those living with spinal cord injuries has it easy. The challenges are manifold. But the three most important ones are — the challenges of physical rehabilitation, social integration, and the high cost of living. While there is a complete lack of awareness when it comes to physical rehabilitation, no family is prepared to deal with the sudden as well as recurring costs that come along with SCIs. On top of the list is social integration, which is interlinked with financial independence.

After 2-3 years of meeting with an accident, Chandrapu Shoba Reddy started making and selling pickles, a small-scale venture that gradually took off.

Physical rehabilitation: The First step  

After sustaining a spinal cord injury, one has to spend some time in rehab. It is the most important step, but due to the lack of awareness, most patients don’t end up in rehabs.

“After surgery, when a person is guided to a rehab, half the battle is won. However, in most cases, doctors, which includes top surgeons and hospitals in this country, don’t do the needful. They are aware, but they don’t advocate because they don’t want to waste their time in spreading awareness,” said Madhuri Paturi. She lives in Bengaluru and for the past two years has been associated with The Ganga Foundation as a peer trainer. The institute has been empowering persons with SCIs for years now. Paturi, a paraplegic herself, is also a jewellery designer and has her own clothing line.

Giving an example of how crucial physical rehabilitation is, Paturi said that after an SCI, people lose bowel and bladder control, but there are ways to deal with this and these are the things that are taught at rehabs. 

Persons with SCI are also at the risk of developing secondary complications such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), pressure sores, and respiratory illness, apart from issues like spasticity, weight gain, and chronic pain. One needs professional guidance to deal with these problems.   

“In India, we hardly have any rehabs. There are just 6-7 state-of-art rehabs. Roughly, we are adding 15,000 persons with SCIs to the existing list, which is very long. The handful of rehabs are catering to maybe 400 patients, and these are those who are aware that they are supposed to go to rehabs. The rest are not even aware,” said Paturi. 

Komal Kamra’s story is proof of this. Kamra is the secretary of The Spinal Foundation, a pan-India umbrella organisation that addresses the daunting challenges faced by persons with SCI, especially those who are also economically challenged, and living in rural areas. In 1993, her family met with an accident in which Kamra and her mother sustained spinal cord injuries, incurable to date, leading to a life long disability.

“My mother was sent to a renowned hospital. After the surgery, they simply sent her home with no concept of rehabilitation. I was treated at an Army hospital, which gave me some ideas about rehab as that is the only way to live a near normal life after sustaining a spinal cord injury. The general public is unaware about spinal cord injury and its devastating effects unless addressed with appropriate rehab. Most health professionals too know little except for those few who are specialised in the field. This was the situation in the 1990s. Same is the situation now,” said Kamra.

She added: “There is a huge gap between the number of beds available for rehab and the number of people who sustain spinal cord injuries. Less than 10% of people actually land at rehab. Even if people are aware, and they have the money, where are the beds? Also, you can count the number of physiatrists on your fingers.” 

In 2021, The Good Story Project made this video to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries.

Social integration and financial independence

After physical rehabilitation, the second important step is social integration. In many cases, families are reluctant to welcome persons with SCIs at home because at least in the initial period they are dependent on their families even for the daily chores. In many families, they are considered to be liabilities if they are not earning or are not contributing to the family income. One may come across many cases in urban areas. The situation in rural pockets is even worse.  The journey becomes all the more difficult for girls in small cities and villages.

“I have been seeing a pattern in the case of girls. If a married woman sustains a spinal cord injury, in most cases, the family refuses to take care of her. If a girl is unmarried, and if she is from a good family, the family says they will take care of her. However, very few even try to find her a partner. It’s taken for granted that no one will marry her. If a girl starts working from home, then she is often told that whatever you are earning is not enough, so there is no point in stepping out for work. This is why I encourage more and more girls to be financially independent. Even if they manage to earn a modest income, that money will boost their confidence. One must remember that social integration happens only when a person is financially independent or contributes to the family’s income,” said Paturi.  

A telephonic conversation with Kanchana from Madurai helped in understanding how crucial the support of family is in helping a person become financially independent. When I interviewed Kanchana, Balageetha Ganesh from Chennai volunteered to be the translator.

Kanchana, a mother of a nine-year-old girl, met with a car accident in 2017 that sheared her spinal cord. Her in-laws and husband immediately took her to CMC Vellore for rehabilitation. She stayed there for 25 days.

“My family was very supportive, and they have always encouraged me. In 2017, I started making paper envelopes. My husband looks after the marketing and sells those envelopes. Since 2017, I have managed to make a marginal profit almost every month. When I get orders, I also make amla powder, pickles, and jams,” said Kanchana.

She has pursued a course in Bachelor of Education and was working at a school before she met with the accident, which may have left her in a wheelchair, but thanks to the support she got from her family, she continues to be financially independent. It really helped that she was sent for physical rehabilitation soon after the accident and the family played a key role in her social integration.

Kanchana with her husband and daughter

Paturi believes that all those who get spinal cord injuries are extremely skilled and they just need the motivation to stand on their feet.

“During one of my peer training, I came across a girl, a single mother, who unfortunately met with an accident and sustained an injury to the spinal cord. She has a young daughter. During one of the training sessions, she told me she likes to stitch, but her father sold off her sewing machine after her accident thinking it was of no use. I told the girl that she can continue stitching even after the injury and that I would arrange for an electric sewing machine for her. Within three days of me motivating her, she arranged for a manual sewing machine on her own, got a motor attached to it, stitched some stuff, and sent me the pictures of the samples,” said Paturi.

She added: “You don’t need to give persons with SCIs, especially girls, additional wings to fly. You just need to motivate them, and they will fly on their own. There is this girl whose father is a tailor. She is 35 now and has been living with SCI for 20 years now. We counselled her family and only recently she went to rehab. Now she is teaching others how to stitch.”

Implications of a spinal cord injury are lifelong and with age, the complications may multiply. “Hence, it is imperative that not only do we work continually towards physical independence but also to be financially independent. In India, social integration happens only if you have money. Some of us run households and pay taxes, but there is a need to motivate a vast number of others, especially girls,” said Kamra.

Komal Kamra (left) is the secretary of The Spinal Foundation. Madhuri Paturi (right) has been associated with The Ganga Foundation as a peer trainer.

SCI and the high cost of living

After sustaining a spinal cord injury, the expenses go up immediately. The first major expense is of physical rehabilitation. Later, one needs physiotherapy and a wheelchair. At some stage, a person will need an advanced wheelchair. One needs life-long medicines, and this is a recurring cost. One needs to spend money on surgeries and medical procedures in case of secondary complications. One may also need to hire one or more helpers or caretakers. In India, they come at a cost and are not trained to deal with persons with SCIs.  

In India, insurance companies don’t cover spinal cord injuries and related costs.

“In Western countries, the governments and insurance companies take care of everything from surgeries, rehabilitation, medicines, wheelchairs, physio, physio equipment, accessible personal vehicle (at an exempted rate) to discharging the person from hospitals and paying for their caregiving. In a few countries, governments provide persons with disabilities a fixed amount of financial assistance every month and help in making their houses disabled-friendly. The best part is schools providing inclusive education,” said Ekta Bhyan, a para-athlete who has represented India at the para-Olympics and para-Asian Games. 

She added: “In India, the government does not give any special incentive to persons with SCI. There are a few rehabs that provide some assistance to those below the poverty line. But it is far from what needs to be done. We need more support from the government and medical insurance companies. In our country, disabled persons are expected to pay taxes, but they can’t avail of medical insurance even when they are ready to pay the premiums.”

In our country, disabled persons are expected to pay taxes, but they can’t avail of medical insurance even when they are ready to pay the premiums: Ekta Bhyan

“Insurance companies refuse to cover us but there are ailments that have nothing to do with our broken spines. Another reason why insurance companies don’t cover us is the lack of data. We are presently working on that, and it is tough. More often than not, a spine injury remains undiagnosed and thought of as weakness or paralysis. Also, many migrant workers who sustain spinal cord injury are sent home after bone stabilisation, and often pass away because of related complications. It’s an unorganised sector. So, it becomes all the more difficult to get exact numbers,” said Kamra.  

Paturi feels insurance must be provided at least for physical rehabilitation, which may result in more people going to rehabs.

There is a need to find long-term solutions, but the need of the hour is to look for immediate short-term solutions.

“To begin with, have a few beds for persons with SCI at the various multi-specialty hospitals, at least one in each state. Due to the lack of trained caretakers, we have no option but to take the help of our domestic helps. An alternative could be to train some people so that they are able to help persons with SCIs and they should be sent where the need is. Prevention is better than cure but if a person is affected, let getting affordable and qualitative rehab be his right,” said Kamra.

Paturi feels the government needs to push for specialised hospitals at the state and district level. “But before everything else, we need to change our mentalities,” she said.

In 2020, The Good Story Project had published a series to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries. Read Mrunmaiy’s storyIshrat’s storyRafat’s storyGarima’s storyPreethi’s storySuresh’s storyKartiki’s storyEkta’s story

Educating kids for Re 1/day … that’s indeed a good ‘Shuruaat’

As per UNICEF, the pandemic and lockdowns have led to the closure of more than 15 lakh schools in India and impacted more than 25 crore children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. However, for a developing country like ours, the pandemic was just an added blow as more than 60 lakh boys and girls were out of school even before the pandemic. Efforts are being made by individuals and organisations to bridge this gap, especially post covid. Recently, Abhishek Shukla, the founder of Shuruaat — Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, opened a school for underprivileged children in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, named Shuruaat Play School. The children studying here are given quality education … and a lot more … for just Re 1/day. Why Re 1? Because that’s how much one tends to give to children who beg at traffic signals. The tagline of the campaign is quite apt – ek rupaiye bhiksha, ya ek rupaiye me shiksha … how would you rather spend your Re 1? By giving it as alms to a child or towards his/her daily school fees?  

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Swati Subhedar

“When we started a few months back, many children would not even take bath or brush their teeth before coming to school. They did not know the importance of hygiene. It wasn’t their fault. They came from extremely poor pockets of the city. We would bathe them, and dress them up in clean uniforms,” said Abhishek Shukla, 31, who opened Shuruaat Play School in April this year in his hometown in Prayagraj (earlier Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh.

“The main purpose of the school is to teach these children moral values, apart from the regular subjects. They come from extremely underprivileged and poor backgrounds. Their parents are daily wage earners and make a living by driving autos or by picking and sorting garbage. Some are unemployed and most consume alcohol. These children go through a lot mentally and emotionally. We have identified some of them and encouraged them to join the school,” he added.

Around 90% of the children studying in the school are first-generation schoolgoers. For now, owing to the space crunch, Shukla and his team of volunteers have identified 50 children who desperately needed help. Some 30-40 are still waiting and thousands are yet to be identified.  

Watch Shuruaat Play School’s fundraising video. Click here to contribute

“It’s a play school, so technically we should have given admission to 3-5-year-old children. However, because of their background, these children were never admitted to any school, and most are in the age group of 6-8 years. In fact, there are 2-3 girls studying in upper Kindergarten (UKG), who are 11-12 years old. It’s the first time in their life that they are going to school. Some children are orphans and the parents of some can’t even afford to pay the fees of Rs 30/month. However, we have allowed them to continue,” said Shukla.

The obvious question that came to my mind was why anyone would expect children from underprivileged backgrounds to pay Rs 30/month when there are many Anganwadi centres and government schools that are teaching children for free.

“The reason is, when parents pay fees, even if it’s as nominal as Re 1/day, both parents and children start taking school seriously. Besides, paying for their children’s education instills a sense of pride and self-respect in the parents. Also, when we take fees, our responsibility and accountability automatically go up,” said Shukla.

He added: “The reason why children drop out from government schools is that they don’t have to pay any fees and hence there is no obligation for parents to send their children to school or children to go to the school daily. The children don’t get any help or motivation from home as their parents don’t understand the importance of education. Gradually, they lose interest and drop out. These are the children we see begging at railway stations or traffic signals. They do odd jobs, or worse, start doing drugs, or end up in juvenile homes.”

Around 50 students are studying at Shuruaat Play School presently

High school dropout rate is indeed an issue. Data speaks volumes. As per the findings of the National Family Health Survey-5 conducted in 2019-21, the most common reason reported for children dropping out of school is a lack of interest in studies. This was the main reason found for children abandoning their education in previous rounds of the survey as well.

The key is to keep the children interested and invested. For this reason, Shukla and the six volunteer teachers working at the school have adopted innovative methods of teaching. The regular pattern of textbooks, classwork, and homework does not appeal to these children, so the teachers try to educate them through games, pictures, and paintings.

And what will happen to these children once they pass out of the play school? Shukla has cracked this. It’s not the first time he is dealing with underprivileged children and trying to integrate them into the mainstream education system.

It all started in 2016. Shukla was preparing to be a civil servant. One day, he was waiting at a traffic signal. A little girl came begging. She was carrying her baby brother in her arms. She told Shukla that her mother had passed away, her father was an alcoholic, and it was her responsibility to raise her brother. Shukla did not buy her story and went along with her to the slum where she lived. What he saw there changed his life. There were so many children who were miles away from any form of education. He decided to put his dream on hold and educate as many children as possible.

Shukla is now looking at CSR funds to make the school sustainable in the long run

A few volunteers joined him and together they started teaching children in slums, on railway platforms, in parks, and on the streets. Many children were addicted to drugs or would beg and were violent. It wasn’t easy, but the team persisted. Gradually, they started enroling these children in government and government-aided schools. It was a huge motivation when some of these children started performing well. The team continued to work even during the 2020 lockdown. Recently, class 10th and 12th board exam results were announced and some of these children, especially girls, from extremely poor backgrounds have cleared their boards with flying colours.

Shuruaat Play School was conceptualised because teaching children in open spaces is difficult. The plan is to open many more such “Re 1” school.

“We need help. Right now, we have managed to collect funds through public fund-raising. People trust us, they have seen our work and hence they have contributed. But this is not going to be sustainable in the long run. The rent of the building where I run the school is Rs 22,000/per month. I am not even able to pay the sweeper Rs 1,500 from the fees that I collect. We are in the process of figuring out a sustainable financial model for our school, but for now, if people could donate to our fundraiser, that would be great,” said Shukla.   

What keeps Shukla going despite the hardships and roadblocks can be gauged from the incident that he narrated.

“There is a lady named Rita Vishwakarma. She works as a house help. A few years back, we helped her two children get admission to a government school. A class 10 pass out, she got married very early and had to kill her desire of becoming a schoolteacher. She joined our school and for one-two years concentrated on brushing her knowledge. Later, she joined as a schoolteacher. When we were starting the play school and scrambling for funds, she pleasantly surprised us by donating Rs 20,000. She had been saving a little from her earnings for 5-6 years so that she could buy a computer for her son. She did not think twice before donating that entire amount to our play school because she believes in our cause. It is this goodwill that keeps me motivated and I am sure I will continue to get help,” said Shukla.  

This is Part 2 of our promotional series ‘Venture Stories’. If you want us to write a feature on your venture, drop us a mail at contactgoodstories@gmail.com and we shall share the details.

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The Good Story Project came into being in October 2020, in the middle of the global pandemic. To read the stories published on our platform, click here.

To read the testimonials, click here, and to know about the various content services that we offer, click here.

A jukebox that will make you nostalgic

When nature forced us to be locked up inside our homes during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, many of us sought solace in music, which helped us heal emotionally. As our lives switched to digital, it led to many connecting in the online world to discuss and share music, and form online music clubs, small and big. So, when two Mumbai-based friends — Kalpana Swamy, a communications professional, who is trained in Hindustani classical music and Kunal Desai, an IT and telecom professional, who is a trained Western classical musician – got an opportunity to create a musical venture, they grabbed it. After two months of intensive research came into being Nostalgiaana Jukebox. Their endeavour is to unearth the forgotten melodies from the 1980s and beyond that evoke the feeling of nostalgia. The USP of their venture is guided listening. In this interview, Swamy and Desai, co-founders of Nostalgiaana Jukebox, tell The Good Story Project’s Swati Subhedar how, through their musical venture, they are striving to spread the goodness of music.     

Music is therapy. During the lockdowns, music helped many deal with their emotions. Tell us about the importance of music in the present anxiety-ridden times.

Swamy: Music has always been an integral part of our culture. Whether classical bandishes or western tunes, everyone has their individual liking and seek solace in their preferred genre. Film music binds everyone alike. During the lockdown, while living within the four walls of our homes, digital connectivity helped us stay connected to the outside world. Online music groups and art communities helped in a big way by channelizing peoples’ creativity.

Tell us about the thought behind launching Nostalgiaana Jukebox.

Swamy: Jukebox is an offshoot of the Nostalgiaana group (earlier known as Rewind), which, during the lockdown, came up with the idea of starting a radio-style online music listening show focusing mainly on the retro film music. This show, known as R4 (Radio Retro Revival), was an instant success, and the audience loved their sessions. 

Desai: When Nostalgiaana approached us for a series on the music of the 1980s and beyond, it seemed like a natural progression. However, before we agreed to take up the show, we started working on the song list. We wanted to make sure that we had a pool of songs to choose from because we had long-term sustenance in mind. After almost two months of background work and research, we hosted our first show on November 16 (2021). I still remember how nervous we were before the show! And, after the show, we behaved like teenagers who had taken their 12th board exam and were cross-checking the answers!

Kalpana Swamy and Kunal Desai, the co-founders of Nostalgiaana Jukebox

People usually associate soothing Hindi melodies with the decades of the 1960s and 70s. It’s interesting that you chose the decades of the 1980s and beyond.

Desai: The general perception is that melodies faded out in the 80s and 90s. On the contrary, some beautiful melodies were composed and sung in this period. Even in the post-millennium years, thanks to the advancement of digital technology, good music was created. However, in the pursuit of commercial success and publicity, good music lagged.

Swamy: Both Kunal and I have grown up listening to the music of the 80s and 90s. There is a great repertoire of melodious music in terms of film songs, non-film albums, and regional music that seldom comes to the surface. Our endeavour is to unearth these lost gems and the forgotten popular numbers and give them their due respect. Through our show, we also highlight the regional and non-film songs that have remained unnoticed by the audience at large.

Tell us more about the concept of guided music sessions.

Swamy: Imagine a studio or a Jam room where before performing a song, the musicians narrate to us the back story of the song to make us understand the nuances and the soul of the song. This way, the audience is able to connect with the song and it enhances their listening experience. This is known as guided listening, which is our focus. It happens many times that we like a song but are not able to decipher what makes it so melodious or why do we yearn to listen to it again and again. We don’t know what raaga the song is based on, what the arrangement of music is or who the arrangers are. Unfortunately, many talented but unknown musicians and songwriters are not known to most people.

Desai: At Nostalgiaana, we highlight the nuances of the songs we play. We believe in “Art before Artiste” and strongly follow what we believe in. This format of ours is loved by our members. They are able to enjoy the songs from a multi-dimensional point of view, which adds value to their listening experience.

What is the USP of Nostalgiaana Jukebox?  

Swamy: We feel film music is much more than just entertainment. It’s a perfect amalgamation of music (composition), literature (lyrics) and art (singing/emotions/picturization). What makes our show unique is that each song is preceded with an elaborate narrative through which we tell our audience about all the nuances of the song. So, it’s the narrative which guides them to listen to a particular song or a portion that’s played. Our other USP is the quality of audio that we play. We invest long hours in editing the songs before we present the playlist to our listeners.

The highlight of the show is the trivia that you pepper the show with. What’s the process behind gathering this trivia?

Swamy: Our source of information is not just what’s there in the public domain. For every song, we try and highlight elements which we are personally sure about. Kunal is a trained Western classical musician and I have taken formal training in Hindustani classical. So, both of us analyze the songs mostly for their musical relevance. We rely on multiple sources to crosscheck facts and we present them to our audience only when we are 100% confident.

Share with us some interesting songs and trivia that you came across while researching.

Desai: We stumbled upon a forgotten gem yeh barfani raatein from the 2017 film Babumoshai Bandookbaaz and loved it. Interestingly, we found its roots in classical raags as well as the blues. Then we came across this beautiful fusion song from a film Blue Mountains called bheeni bheeni bhor, which was loved by our audience. Very recently we played a song chaha hai tujhe chanhenge from the film Jeena Marna Tere Sang which was released in the early 90s. While researching on it we traced that the mukhda of the song is inspired by an unreleased song of RD Burman. In fact, we have a small segment on our social media pages called #JukeboxConnect, where we co-relate some known tunes and their counter new songs. This helps the audience relate to the old tunes which inspire new melodies.

How do you make sure that each episode is unique?

Swamy: We have always believed that the narrative should be complemented by songs and not the other way round. So, for every episode, our challenge is how to make the song presentation intriguing and interesting. Then comes the playlist curation, which is the most difficult, but also the most interesting, element of our work. For each episode, we include a few unique elements like an artist’s birthday or achievement showcase and one farmaish song by our members. While we try and balance out the mood of the songs, we try to retain the element of nostalgia in all the songs. We think from the perspective of our audience while selecting the songs. Both Kunal and I have different tastes in music and many a times we end up having differences of opinion, but it’s our great partnership that has shaped Nostalgiaana Jukebox.

How do you ensure that the non-connoisseurs of music are as invested in the show as those who understand music and melodies?

Swamy: Every member is important to us. While a few patrons are musically trained and understand the nuances, most of the members are new to this concept of guided listening. So, instead of making our show information-heavy, we try to keep the flow very easy and conversational. Whether a member is musically inclined or a casual listener, we make sure each member enjoys the playlist that we curate. We also have a live chat going on throughout the show which makes the interaction lively and engaging.

What have been the biggest milestones so far? How has the response been?

Desai: Our 50th episode was our biggest milestone. We were overwhelmed with the love and appreciation we received from our audience. We have been fortunate to receive some great reviews from our friends from the entertainment industry. We did one on-ground show in Mumbai which was very well received. Recently we hosted our 60th episode.

Swamy: We thrive on comments and feedbacks. We have many senior members in our group and it’s very encouraging to see them enjoy the music of 90s and beyond. The way they engage in conversations is very overwhelming. Once a member wrote to us saying that when he was feeling low after his mother’s untimely demise, our show helped him rebound. This was precious to us. Another member, who is a singer, said he was surprised to find that there are so many incredible songs from the 90s and beyond that he can now add to his playlist. We are glad that we are able to enrich the lives of our members in many ways.

What’s your vision for your venture in the years to come?

Desai: At Nostalgiaana Jukebox, we are committed to providing wholesome entertainment to our members with our unique playlist and narrations. We want to make Jukebox the biggest platform where contemporary music is appreciated. We also want to bridge the divide between music lovers from yesteryears and the current generation.

This is Part 1 of our promotional series ‘Venture Stories’. If you want us to write a feature on your venture, drop us a mail at contactgoodstories@gmail.com and we shall share the details.

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The Good Story Project came into being in October 2020, in the middle of the global pandemic. To read the stories published on our platform, click here.

To read the testimonials, click here, and to know about the various content services that we offer, click here.

Reaching Mount Everest base camp … one step at a time

On May 3, the day the world was celebrating Eid, at 11 AM, the mighty Himalayan mountains reverberated with the sound of the Indian national anthem. A team of nine, that included a double amputee, a visually impaired judo player, a blade runner, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, among others, reached the Mount Everest base camp, situated at the height of 5,364 meters. One of them was single-leg amputee and dancer and national wheelchair basketball player Chanchal Soni, 14, who hails from Nari, a small village in Chhattisgarh. She scaled the summit with the help of ordinary crutches and became the youngest single-leg amputee climber in the world. It was her first mission, and she says it certainly won’t be her last. However, all her future missions depend on something crucial … funding. Soni feels her story did not get the kind of attention it deserved, and more coverage might help her secure funds for her future missions. Being a platform that promotes equality and inclusion, we decided to tell her story.

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Swati Subhedar  

The telephonic interview with Chanchal Soni, 14, who lives in a hostel for special children and children with disabilities, in Dhamtari district in Chhattisgarh, was set for 11:30 am. At 11:20, Soni gave me a call to inform me that she was all set. During the interview, I smiled every time she, very innocently, said she wants to be a “mountner” (mountaineer) and do “mounting” (mountaineering), but the passion with which it was said was unmissable. After the interview, she called me again to tell me: “No one has asked me these questions before. Please write a good story. It will help me get funding for my September summit to Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Just last month, on May 3, Soni, who is a single amputee (below knee), scaled the Mount Everest base camp along with nine others from Chhattisgarh and became the youngest single-leg amputee climber in the world to do so. The mission was spearheaded by Chhattisgarh-based double amputee Chitrasen Sahu. One of the objectives of his initiative “Mission Inclusion” is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities. Apart from Soni and Sahu, the nine team members included a visually impaired judo player, a blade runner, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

The team started the journey to the Mount Everest base camp, situated at the height of 5,364 meters, on April 24, and completed the mission on May 3 in record 10 days instead of 17.

Chanchal Soni, 14, at the Mount Everest base camp. Presently, She is the youngest
single-leg amputee climber in the world

“I had never seen snow before”

“The first thought that came to my mind after reaching the base camp was ‘I did it’. It was not easy. On the first day itself, the rubber base of one of my crutches came off because of which one crutch became shorter than the other and it made the climb all the more difficult. In addition, big boulders were kept for the convenience of other trekkers, but they proved to be a major roadblock for us,” said Soni.

It was for the first time that Soni was walking in ankle-deep snow and encountering nail-biting cold. “It had snowed just two days before we reached. I was not carrying proper warm clothes. We shopped in Kathmandu, and I bought woolens and a raincoat. It was not easy to walk wearing so many layers, but it was so cold that I could not even take them off,” she said.

She added: “As it was my first summit, for the first time I was experiencing the discomfort one feels when the oxygen level dips. They would monitor our oxygen thrice a day. It was all new for me. I had been practicing for one year before the mission. I would walk for 12 kms from Rudri (a small town in Dhamtari) to the Gangrel dam every day. I also went trekking to the hillocks nearby. But that walking was all on straight roads. This was something different.”

Considering the team was a mixed lot of able-bodied and differently abled climbers, they would keep each other motivated throughout the trek. “One day I almost fell into a deep valley. That day I got really scared and felt I would not be able to make it. But my teammates motivated me, and I kept going. When we reached the base camp, we clicked many pictures and sang the national anthem. It was a special moment,” said Soni.   

Soni is also passionate about dance and is popularly known as a one-leg dancer

Embracing her disability

Born on January 15, 2008, in a village called Nari in Chhattisgarh, Soni was quick to accept and embrace her disability. “This is how I was born. But as I child I was very restless and while playing would easily climb trees and scale walls. Looking at my agility people would say I can easily climb mountains. I was fairly grown-up when my aunt told me about people who scale summits. That stayed in my mind and that became my dream. Since then, I was determined to do mounting (mountaineering),” said Soni.  

Ironically, it was her other passion, dance, which opened the world of opportunities for her. She is popularly known as a one-leg dancer in the state. “Since childhood, I loved the rhythm of music. Initially, I would watch videos and dance at home. Then I received training. Soon, I started performing at cultural events. A few years back, I performed at the annual Kumbh mela in Rajim (a small town). The video went viral, and my picture was carried by local newspapers. In one of the interviews, I had mentioned that I wished to become a mountner (mountaineer). Luckily, Chitrasen (Sahu) bhaiyya (brother) saw that interview and got in touch with me.”   

Soni is the youngest national wheelchair basketball player in the country in the senior category 

Youngest national wheelchair basketball player in the country

Sahu, who is known as “half human robo”, is a blade runner, a national wheelchair basketball player and swimmer, a motivational speaker and an inclusion and disability rights activist based in Chhattisgarh. He got in touch with Soni and trained her to play wheelchair basketball. When she went to represent Chhattisgarh at the nationals held in Mohali (Punjab), she became the youngest national wheelchair basketball player in the country in the senior category.  It was in 2019. The global pandemic, which forced all of us to stay indoors, was a major dampener for Soni as well.

“It was during the pandemic period that we started planning for summits and working on the logistics. What I have learnt is getting funds for these summits is the toughest. People make promises, but when it comes to parting with funds, they hesitate or simply disappear. I had to cancel two missions because of a lack of funds. Finally, the Mount Everest one somehow worked out. Now again we are trying to get funds for the upcoming September summit to Kilimanjaro. Again, despite the recent achievement, I am facing similar problems,” said Soni.

Soni with her mother, her biggest cheerleader

“In the absence of funds, how will these children fulfill their dreams?”

Soni’s biggest cheerleader is her mother, Manju Soni, a single parent. Her husband, Sanjay, who owned a jewelry shop, passed away in 2016 after a prolonged illness. Since then, she has been living in a locality named Naya Para in the state capital Raipur and sent Chanchal to the hostel for special children in Dhamtari. Her siblings – an elder brother and a younger sister – live with her relatives. Manju makes a living by cooking meals for families.

 “I am grateful to Chanchal’s mentors at the hostel. It’s a charity organization so I don’t have to pay any fees. They have been really motivating and whatever my daughter has managed to achieve so far is thanks to them. Given our financial condition, I would not have been able to support my daughter in all these endeavors,” said Soni.

She was extremely skeptical when her daughter told her that she was going to scale the Mount Everest base camp. “But I let her go because it was her dream. There were network issues, and I could not talk to my daughter while she was on her mission. However, I would drop a message every single day and wait for a response. Those days were tough. But when I came to know that the team had reached the base camp, I was very happy. I had never imagined that my daughter could achieve something like this. Now I am more confident to send her for her future missions.”

Lack of funding is an issue that bothers her as well. “Not everyone is financially stable. There are children who are born with disabilities. One can’t change that. But the least the government can do is to help such children in every way possible to keep them motivated,” she said.     

During the telephonic interview when I had asked Chanchal to comment on what she thought about inclusion, there was long silence. She thought very hard and said: “Inclusion means children who are born without any disabilities should allow us to play with them. Full-grown adults should stop looking at us with pity and they should not taunt us. It’s because of this attitude prevalent in our society, parents don’t allow children like me to step out. They keep them protected at home or they start feeling ashamed of our existence. It’s because of this pressure that many children like me are not able to do anything. This should change and this is what inclusion means.”   

Also read: The international wheelchair basketball player from Kashmir

Also read: The Tokyo Paralympian from Haryana

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

The story of the tree-hugging Adivasis of Hasdeo Arand

The Glasgow Climate Change Conference, held in October-November 2021, listed coal and deforestation as two of the most serious causes of climate change. A few months later, in March-April this year, the Chhattisgarh government gave its final assent to mining in two coal blocks in the Hasdeo Arand region in the state. The move would result in the death of more than 4.5 lakh trees and the displacement of thousands of Adivasis. It will also have an adverse impact on the rich biodiversity. These days, illiterate Adivasis, who can’t even spell coal mining, deforestation, displacement, or climate change, have been staging a silent protest against the outlandish decision taken by learned policymakers, bureaucrats, and politicians. We spoke to various stakeholders in the state to understand why this mining drama has been unfolding for more than a decade now and the significance of the present protests.

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Swati Subhedar

Adivasis of Chhattisgarh have a symbiotic relationship with the forests, which are spread across 44% of the state. They are a part of the culture and tradition of the natives, and many are dependent on these forests for livelihood.

A portion of these forests is grabbing the headlines these days. Extending over 17 lakh hectares and spread across three districts of Chhattisgarh – Korba, Surguja, and Surajpur — the Hasdeo Arand region is one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forests in central India. The forests in the region are an important corridor for the movement of elephants and tigers and are one of the most pristine sal and teak forests in the country. The presence of many recorded species — that includes 82 species of birds, endangered species of butterflies, and 167 types of flora, with 18 labelled as ‘threatened’ — makes the region extremely rich in biodiversity.

Coincidentally, Chhattisgarh is the largest coal-producing state, and the Hasdeo-Arand Coalfield is the third largest in terms of coal reserves (17%) in the country with an area of 1,879.8 sq km. Out of the total coal-bearing area, 1,502 sq km falls in the forest. The Ministry of Coal has identified a total of 23 coal blocks in the Hasdeo-Arand Coalfield.

The Adivasis started protesting in April this year after the central and subsequently the state government granted mining permission in two of the 23 coal blocks – Parsa and Parsa East Kente Basan (PEKB). It’s the PEKB conflict that has been going on for more than a decade.

In 2007, the government of India allotted the PEKB mine to the Rajasthan government’s power generation utility — Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam (RRVUNL). In 2008, RRVUNL selected privately-run Adani Group to run the mine as a developer and operator, the first such contract in India.

If you wish to understand the timeline of this conflict, refer to the slideshow below.

The first phase of the PEKB mining was completed in March 2022 and as per the official figure, nearly 80,000 trees were chopped. Ironically, despite several cases pending in the High Court and the Supreme Court against mining in this area, the state government gave permission to RRVUNL for the second phase of mining in PEKB in March this year. Barely 10 days later, it also gave a green signal to mining in the Parsa block.

As per the estimates, mining in these two blocks combined would lead to the chopping of more than 4.5 lakh trees (two lakh in PEKB and 2.5 lakh in Parsa). It will also lead to the displacement of thousands of Adivasis and will have an adverse impact on biodiversity.

We spoke to various stakeholders in the state to understand why the conflict has dragged on for more than a decade, the significance of these protests, and what the future holds. Unfortunately, three of the important stakeholders – trees, birds, and animals – would never be able to narrate their side of the story.

Adivasis in Chhattisgarh protesting against fake gram sabha consents obtained for giving clearances for coal mining. Image credit: Twitter.

“Authorities bypassing Gram Sabhas has angered people”

The Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) had way back in 2010 declared 15% area in the country as a “no-go” area for coal mining. Hasdeo was a part of this list. The drama started unfolding. In December 2015, 20 villages in the Hasdeo Arand forests held Gram Sabhas to protest against their displacement as a result of coal mining. They argued that the proposed coal mining contravened their individual and community forest rights, under the Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA), the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA), and the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. These laws require informed consent from Gram Sabhas before any land acquisition can take place in scheduled areas like Hasdeo.

In 2016, for the first phase of mining in the PEKB block, the government gave its consent under the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which required a nod from the Gram Sabhas for land acquisition. However, because the Gram Sabhas have been protesting persistently, for the second phase of mining, the government bypassed the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, and granted permission for mining under the Coal Bearing Act, 1957, in which consent of Gram Sabhas is not required at all.

“It is this bypassing of laws, Acts, and norms that has angered people this time. This is the primary reason why they are protesting,” said Sandip Patel, who is based in the state capital Raipur. He is associated with a non-profit Jan Adivasi Samajik Vikas Sanstha and is closely monitoring the present protests.

He informed that in October 2021, 350 Adivasis from Korba and Surguja districts walked 300 kms from Ambikapur in Surguja to the state capital Raipur to protest against the mining projects.  Yet, a few months later, in March and April, the government gave permission for mining in two coal blocks.

On April 26, Adivasi women living in Janardanpur village in the Hasdeo region started a tree-hugging protest to prevent authorities from chopping trees. Since then, Adivasis have been protesting against the government decision in several villages.    

India has proven coal reserves equivalent to 111.5 times its annual consumption. “Coal reserves in Hasdeo are just 10% of coal reserves found in the entire Chhattisgarh. This is why Adivasis feel that a biodiversity-rich region like Hasdeo should not be touched,” said Patel.

He added: “The MoEF, while declaring Hasdeo as a “no-go” region in 2010, had mentioned the biodiversity factor. The latest ICFRE-WII (Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education-Wildlife Institute of India) report, which came out in 2021, has elaborated in great detail about mining being a threat to biodiversity, yet the government went ahead.”

As per the state government numbers, a total of 195 people were killed in elephant attacks and 43 elephants died between January 1, 2019, and December 2021. Image credit: orissapost.com

Mining will lead to more human-elephant conflicts: ICFRE-WII report  

Talking about the report, an expert based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, on the condition on anonymity, said: “It was decided in 2017 that a biodiversity assessment study will be conducted by the state government through ICFRE, Dehradun in consultation with WII for the Hasdeo-Arand Coalfield. The 277-page report highlights that over 80% of the Hasdeo Arand Coalfields and the landscape surrounding it is forested. It mentions that all coal blocks lie within the forest area and the PEKB coal block is rich in biodiversity.” He chose to remain anonymous as it’s a sensitive issue.

While elaborating on the findings of the WII-ICFRE report and the subsequent government nod, the expert said: “While issuing the clearance in October last year, the government referred to the ICFRE report, which had mentioned adverse impacts of mining in Hasdeo. However, it recommended that four coal blocks that are in the same vicinity can be considered for mining with environmental safeguards.”

On the contrary, the WII report had recommended that the entire Hasdeo area, except for the operational mines, be declared as a “no-go” area and that no fresh mines should be permitted. “It remains unclear why the recommendations of the ICFRE were taken into consideration, but those of the WII were not,” the expert added.

While the report talks about a variety of issues, it is important to highlight the issue of the human-elephant conflict in the region.

Chhattisgarh is among the states that are worst hit by the human-elephant conflict in the country, with more than 10 of its 28 districts affected. As per the state government numbers, a total of 195 people were killed in elephant attacks and 43 elephants died between January 1, 2019, and December 2021.

“The Hasdeo region is an important migratory corridor for elephants. Mining and deforestation will have an adverse impact on the routes that have been traditionally taken by these elephants and this may lead to more human-elephant conflicts,” said Nitin Singhvi, an environmentalist based in Chhattisgarh.

Below is an excerpt from the ICFRE-WII report that sheds light on the human-elephant conflict.

“… the situation of human-elephant conflict (HEC) in Chhattisgarh is a paradox with a relatively low number of elephants (less than 300, which is less than 1% of India’s wild elephant population) but higher number of incidents of HEC with over 60 humans succumbing to these conflicts every year (more that 15% of the reported human deaths due to HEC).”

In addition, the Hasdeo region is a bridge between the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh and Palamu Tiger Reserve in Jharkhand. As a result of this, there have been occasional sightings of tigers. Deforestation may affect the movement of tigers between Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand.

In 2020, despite the lockdown, small forest produce worth more than ₹18.63 crore was purchased from forest-dwellers and villagers in the state. Image credit: Taran Prakash Sinha/Twitter

Locals are dependent on these forests for livelihood: Report

On an average, a tribal family in the state earns Rs 1-1.5 lakh in a year from the collection and sale of minor forest produce like tendu patta, mahua and chironjee that they procure from the forests. In fact, in 2020, despite the lockdown, small forest produce worth more than ₹18.63 crore was purchased from forest-dwellers and villagers in the state. The ICFRE-WII report mentions that over 60-70% of the total annual income of local communities comes from forest-based resources.

“It’s the mahua season. Each Adivasi family must have collected 4-10 quintals of mahua. They will earn a decent amount after selling this. Similarly, they manage to earn a couple of thousands by selling other forest produce like tendu patta, chironjee and sal seeds. This is our life. This has been going on for decades and for generations. Now, suddenly if they will wipe out our forests where will we go? What will we do? asked Umeshwar Singh Armo, sarpanch, Batauli tehsil in Surguja district.

He added: “The minor and major forest produce that we collect and sell in markets across the country and are even exported. So not just us, all of you are staring at losses too if our forests are chopped off.”

Comparing these forests to bank accounts, Ramlal Kariyal, who lives in a village in Surguja, said: “Just like how your money remains safe in a bank account, we feel safe in the presence of these forests that keep giving us revenues all year long. We collect mahua in one season, tendu in the next, mushrooms in the third, and it continues.” 

To understand the actual impact of mining-led deforestation on Adivasis, The Good Story Project got in touch with Alok Putul, a Chhattisgarh-based journalist and an author, who has been tracking the entire conflict. He has also visited some of the villages where the Adivasis have been protesting since April this year. He said: “Deforestation and encroachment of forests by the mining companies will severely impact the forest-dwelling communities in Chhattisgarh. They are dependent on these forests for livelihood. Previously, when their land was encroached upon by the mining companies, the Adivasis could no longer collect forest produce from the forests around them as they got displaced. As a result of this, they had to move to the forest areas inhabited by other Adivasis to collect tendu leaves or mahua. Further encroachment and deforestation will create an imbalance in the region and severely impact livelihood opportunities. The Adivasis have seen what happened last time, so they are protesting more fiercely now.”

Adivasis says they will continue to protect their jal, jungle, zameen: Image credit: Twitter

“We don’t want compensation, jobs, or new homes. We don’t want coal mining. That’s it”

Previously, when the land of Adivasis was acquired for mining, people had demanded employment and compensation as per India’s rehabilitation policy, and strict and full implementation of FRA and PESA. The compensation offered to them to vacate the land was on par with the market rate and in some cases more. Suddenly, the Adivasis a lot of money in their hands and bank accounts and they did not how to use or invest this money effectively.

“Adivasis are simple people with basic needs. They are dependent on forests for livelihood or are farmers. When they suddenly got a lot of money, to the tune of lakhs and crores, there was no one to guide them as to how to save or invest that money,” said Putul.

He added: “Some people opened small showrooms or bought shops in small towns but did not have the skills to run those, some simply spent that money on materialist things like cars and liquor. There were also instances wherein chit fund companies duped them by making them part with their money and fled and they were left with absolutely nothing.”  

This time too, the government will offer them compensation, employment, and new homes, but Adivasis, who are now wiser after their past experiences want none of this. They simply want coal mining to stop.

“In all, 1,200 people in my tehsil are going to get displaced. We are not even asking for compensation or jobs. The government thinks offering jobs to some members of the family in lieu of their land is development. It’s not. This development is negligible when compared to the massive losses coal mining will bring to the region. There can never be any compensation for that,” said Armo.

Kariyal said in his tehsil three villages are going to get displaced, but this time people are not pressing for compensation or rehabilitation. They are channelizing all their energy to ensure mining stops. He added that anyway the Adivasis don’t prefer to live in the government accommodations given by the government.

“These are typical government residences built under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana. It’s difficult for Adivasis to live in such small houses as they live in the forests in huge huts. They also have to accommodate their cattle. They are not used to confined spaces. If you visit the colonies that were built for displaced people last time, not a single person lives in any of the houses. They have all left and made alternate arrangements. Besides, just providing residences is not enough. What about their education and healthcare?” asked Patel.

On the intervening night of April 26, some men came along with police personnel and mercilessly cut 300 trees. Image credit: Alok Shukla/Twitter

“We will continue to fight to protect our jal, jungle, zameen’

“We are already seeing elephants entering our homes and our fields and damaging crops. They have started attacking and killing people. In the future, the state government will not be able to contain the conflict. What about the endangered plants, birds, animal species and butterflies? How much more damage are they going to cause? This time we will not bend. We will continue to protest to protect our jal, jungle, zameen,” said Kariyal.

On the intervening night of April 26, some men came along with police personnel and mercilessly cut 300 trees. The Adivasis are even more guarded now.

“Why isn’t the government understanding a simple thing. The Adivasis will not gain anything from the mines. But if we let the forests flourish, they will benefit the entire humankind in the long run. There are other mining areas in the country where there are no forests. Let them come to Hasdeo when all the coal in the country gets over. This time the government will have to listen,” said Armo.

(Cover image credit: Alok Shukla, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan)

…..

Also read: “How will our schools in Chhattisgarh survive post pandemic?”

Also read: “We must find ways to show Adivasi ‘superfoods’ a way into our kitchens!”

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Here’s to strong and inspiring women

Being a platform that’s run by two women, it’s our honour and privilege to celebrate women on this International Women’s Day. It’s been sixteen months since we published our first story on The Good Story Project. Of the 68 stories published so far, some are about women who inspire, and some are written by wonderful women writers. All the women-centric stories – including interviews and first-person accounts — that we have published on our platform have moved us, touched us, motivated us, and inspired us. On this special day, we thought about revisiting these stories and sharing them with you. After all, it’s not just about one day. With such powerful women around, every day is a women’s day.

Ajjibaichi Shala … a school for grandmothers

What’s unique about a small village named Fangane, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra? The village is home to Ajjibaichi Shala — a school for grandmothers, which was inaugurated on March 8, 2016, on the occasion of Women’s Day. These grandmothers – all in the age group of 60 to 90 years – had just one dream … to be able to write their names before they reached the end of their lives. Their dream came true in 2016 when Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, opened a school for them. Now, they proudly shun the thumb impression ink pad and put their signatures on ration cards and bank documents.

Read this inspiring story here.

Kiranjit Kaur’s incredible journey

On April 23, 2016, Kiranjit Kaur’s father Gurnam Singh, 48, a farmer living in Katra Kalan village in Mansa district in Punjab hanged himself by a tree as he was unable to pay the debt of Rs 8 lakh. Kaur was just 23. After struggling emotionally and financially for two years, she formed the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee to help the families of farmers and farm labourers cope with suicide, a grim reality in Punjab and the rest of the country. Today, 6,000 people are a part of the outfit. The members include families of farmers and farm labourers in Punjab who could not cope with the pressure and chose to take the extreme step. The committee members not just provide moral and emotional support to widows and mothers; they also fight for the government compensation that the victim families are supposed to get and ensure that children from such families do not drop out of schools and colleges.

Click here to read Kiranjit’s story.

“Be kind, be inclusive”

Mrunmaiy Abroal is a communications professional, who is presently working with Amazon in Bangalore. In 2011, she suffered an injury in her spinal cord, which left her in a wheelchair. In this story, she shares her journey of recovering from the accident, getting back to work, and the challenges of working in an office. “If you are hiring a person with a disability, you don’t have to lower your expectations. Also, while calling someone with a disability for an interview, be sensitive towards the kind of disability he/she has and make appropriate arrangements,” she says.

Click here to read her powerful first-person account.

A wheelchair basketball player from Kashmir

In 2019, Kashmir was virtually cut-off from the rest of the country after Article 370 was revoked and the state was put under lockdown. Why the Indian Army and the Jammu and Kashmir police were tracking down Ishrat Akhtar, a wheelchair basketball player, is a fascinating story, but also a grim reminder about how difficult it has been for sportspersons, especially para-sports players, from Kashmir. “There are many talented players in Kashmir, but they don’t get opportunities as there are no facilities. The government should look into this,” she says.

Read Ishrat’s story here.

“We only ask for a level playing field”

In 1998, Preethi Srinivasan went on a college trip to Pondicherry. A freak accident left her paralyzed below the neck. Life has been a constant struggle after that, but the sportswoman in her is always determined to take each problem head-on. “Education is a great leveller. We do not ask for sympathy; we only ask for a level playing field that fulfils our basic right to equal rights in education and employment. The government has several quotas for persons with disabilities, but most of these are not being implemented,” she says.

If you are a girl/woman, you must read this story.

“My daughters complete my life”

Rafat Siddiqui’s journey to motherhood began eight years after her life-altering accident in 2010. In this interview, she talks about her supportive family, the special bond that she shares with her husband, embracing motherhood, and her daughters who mean the world to her. “It was a miracle. I asked my husband to buy me a pregnancy kit. In my head, I knew the test was going to be negative, but, in my heart, I was hoping for it to be positive. Those few minutes were the longest of my life. The result made me numb. My husband is my spine, and my daughters are the miracle that completes my life,” says Rafat.

Read her wonderful journey of motherhood here.

Fighting for better infrastructure … 

Because of infrastructural woes, thousands of students with disabilities are grappling with the challenges of access and inclusion. Garima Vyas, who is in a wheelchair ever since she met with an accident in 2016, is fighting a lone battle as her university says it needs a nod from the government to make alterations in the heritage structure of the building to accommodate her. “There is a flight of stairs right at the entrance of my department building. My mother, who accompanies me to the university to help me around, must literally pull the wheelchair up the stairs. This is very dangerous. Also, it’s a herculean task for me to move from one building to the other in a wheelchair. So, I attend just one lecture in a week,” says Garima.

Read Garima’s story here.

“We need more training institutes”

As a college student, Kartiki Patel would sometimes bunk her classes to play basketball, a sport she was passionate about. However, after an accident that left her in a wheelchair, in the absence of proper information, good infrastructure, and trained coaches, she had to wait for long to get back on the basketball court. This is the story of almost all para-sports persons. “First, there is a lack of awareness about disability in India among the general population. Second, how will persons with disabilities take up competitive sports if there is no awareness? On top of that, where are the facilities? I struggled because of the lack of awareness and infrastructure,” she says.

Read Kartiki’s story here.

“Help us become financially independent”

“For female para-athletes, sports can be a great medium to be financially independent. However, it’s only recently that the government has started promoting para-sports, and there’s a lot that needs to be done. Also, it is very crucial to treat para-athletes on par with able-bodied athletes in terms of cash prizes and providing job opportunities. This will motivate them to continue playing sports”

— Ekta Bhyan, a club throw champion, who participated in the recently concluded Tokyo Paralympics.

Read Ekta’s powerful story here

“I pay tribute to pain”

“Nainika is here!”

These were my words when I first held her in my arms. I was ecstatic as I had silent faith it was always going to be Nainika. To fix the third-degree tear I had had while delivering her, I was taken to the operation theatre and I remember blabbering all the way to the operation theatre, how happy I was today and that I was a mother to a gorgeous little baby girl called Nainika. I told them proudly, Nainika means apple of our eyes.

When the coffin arrived home before the funeral service, someone came and said to me, “Nainika is here!”

Read Nainika’s story here.

“I feel a lump in my throat …”

“Talking of grief and pain getting smoother with time, I can say that when you look back and see the marks of the dried-up wounds suddenly it hurts sometimes. I can feel pain physically somewhere in the middle of my stomach or someplace within. When I think of our daughter and how both of them missed getting to know each other, I feel a lump in my throat and a horrible feeling of loss and of how unfair it is”

Artist and sculptor Zaida Jacob’s daughter was only a year and a half when she lost her husband.

Read her story here.

“In December 2020, I lost my ma to Covid”

In November 2020, Pooja Ganju Adlakha started writing a story which was meant to be about coping with the grief of losing her father, Major Virendra Ganju, in 2016 to Motor Neuron Disease. However, by the time the story could come out, she unexpectedly lost her mother to Covid. In this first-person account, she writes about how, with both her parents gone, she is experiencing a different kind of an empty nest syndrome.

Read Pooja’s story here.

“I was just 13 when my father passed away”

In this first-person account, Eshwari Shukla, a journalist, talks about the day her father passed away in an accident when she was only 13. She mentions how, initially, it was strange for her to see her mother in a white saree. Her empty forehead would remind her of the sudden vacuum in their lives, but, gradually, the mother-daughter duo became each other’s silent strength while coping with their common grief.

Read Eshwari’s story here.

“There’s hope I will meet my mother someday”

Darshana Shukul, a corporate communication professional, lost her mother soon after her baby brother was born. She was just five. She still remembers seeing her mother lying on the hospital bed, pale and lifeless, and the strange deafening silence between the two. In a first-person account, she talks about how, while growing up, she wrote stories, sought solace in God’s grace, and befriended books, weapons that helped her battle the painful emotions of losing her mother.

Read Darshana’s story here.

“Do I look like a person with mental illness?”

“I have been working for more than three decades in the disability sector in India. There are many issues in the sector which are very close to my heart. However, the invisibility of mental health issues is something that hurts me the most. Misinformation on mental illnesses and psychosocial disabilities are galore in our country. Reasons may be manifold. One of them might be that one cannot ‘see’ a mental illness?”

Shampa Sengupta is an activist working on gender and disability rights. Read her powerful story here.

Doodles and mental health

Tanika Godbole is a journalist and a comic artist, who started making doodles in 2017 to get out of a bad phase and randomly shared them on social media platforms. She was surprised that people found her work relatable and funny, and her Instagram followers kept on increasing. In an interview, she talks about how ‘missfitcomics’ has helped her deal with her emotional issues and how art can be a saviour during the pandemic.

Read Tanika’s story here.

“I highly recommend therapeutic writing”

Anjana Deshpande, a licensed clinical social worker based in the US, tells in an interview how we can use our rich tradition of art, storytelling, and poetry to heal from the collective trauma that we are experiencing presently because of the coronavirus pandemic and elaborates on how, as per a study, people who wrote for at least 15 minutes a day about a painful moment are better equipped to deal with painful circumstances

Click here to read the interview

Pandemic and writing for children …

“The lockdown was hard for everyone, especially children. So I wanted the book to work at creating possible connections – our own experience of difficulty can open us out to another’s difficulty – self-awareness versus making it a ‘scolding’, a moralising to create empathy for the ‘other’. I didn’t want the book to become the ‘wagging finger’. But I did want it to talk of the difficult experiences of the pandemic for all children”

Samina Mishra is a filmmaker, children’s book author and teacher who wrote Jamlo Walks – the hard-hitting picture book based on a true story of a 12-year-old girl who walked all the way from Telangana to Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Carrying her little bag of chillies, Jamlo covered a distance of 155 miles during the lockdown

Click here to read the interview.

Writing on human-animal conflict

Between 2015 and 2019, 62 elephants were killed by trains in India and more than 1,700 people and more than 300 elephants died in encounters with each other. The human-elephant conflict is real, and, in most cases, humans are to be blamed for it. In the name of development and wanting more coal mines, factories, railway lines and wider highways, we have entered the homes of elephants and we blame them for coming out and destroying paddy fields and harming humans. In one of the chapters of her recently published book Wild and Wilful, Neha Sinha, conservation biologist and author, has documented many heart-breaking stories of elephants and their calves falling into mine pits, getting crushed under trains or sustaining burn injuries because of fireballs thrown at them.

Click here to read the interview.

Documenting Parveen Babi’s life

Karishma Upadhyay is a veteran film journalist, a specialist on Bollywood. Parveen Babi – A Life, is her first book, for which, she interviewed the star’s former friends, lovers, and colleagues to build a portrait that is rich and multi-layered. Upadhyay spoke to Prerna Shah about the research that went into making the book, as well as about bringing to light several lesser-known facets of Babi’s life and personality.

Click here to read the interview.

Winter diaries from Almora

Eating only home-grown organic vegetables, looking after cows and consuming fresh milk, breathing in the fresh air, connecting with your roots, spotting tiger pug marks in your courtyard, and spending most of your day playing with dogs and pups and shooing monkeys away while working from home and fulfilling your professional commitments … if this sounds like an exciting life, writer, director, and filmmaker Kanchan Pant is actually living it.

Read Kanchan’s story here.

“One April noon, we met our new mom”

“One April afternoon, we left to meet our new mom. I was nervous. When we arrived, I saw a woman wearing a beautiful saree. She came towards us and I said, ‘Hi Ma’am.’ She smiled. Then I said ‘Mom?’ She said yes. She introduced herself, ‘Namaste, I am Rama, your new mom.’” 

Anjali Fahnline, 14, writes about her adoption journey. Fahnline and her two sisters were adopted in 2017, and she is our youngest ever contributor, bringing in the much-needed perspective as an adoptee, and an honest account of her experiences and feelings.

Read Anjali’s story here.

Getting ready for adoption

Smriti Gupta, is a child rights campaigner, and a partnerships and marketing professional. She is working to drive awareness and find lasting solutions for India’s most vulnerable children. In an interview with Prerna Shah, she talks about creating a Facebook group that supports Prospective Adoptive Parents (PAPs), how a family can prepare themselves prior to bringing home a child, as well as her campaign on Safe Surrender.

Click here to read the interview.

The many challenges of parenting

“Parenting hasn’t been easy. During my child’s first eight months, I suffered from post-natal depression. Instead of counselling what I ended up with was streams of visitors, relatives and friends who would drop in to see my baby at any time of the day or night, often without asking me if I was okay with it. It drained my energy, along with long breastfeeding sessions and sleepless nights, to such an extent that I didn’t want to spend an hour a week talking to a therapist.”

Eisha Sarkar, a communications professional reflects on her journey as a parent and describes incidents, books, and literature that helped her chart her own journey through motherhood.

Read Eisha’s story here.

“Disrupted adoptions have gone up”

Sangitha Krishnamurthi, is a special educator, and adoptive parent. In an essay she wrote for The Good Story Project, she talked about some of the aspects that are often pushed under the carpet when talking about adoption and the need to move beyond a simplistic understanding of adoption to help avoid some of these disruptions.

Read Sangita’s story here.

“What was the fault of these children and teachers? How do our schools survive post-pandemic?”

Gaurav Girija Shukla lives in a small town named Arang, 40 kms from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur. Nearly 20 years back, his parents opened a school in Arang. Over the years, the school has been providing affordable and quality education to underprivileged children living in nearby villages. The parents of these children belong to lower-middle income groups, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, or are farmers and daily wagers. The founders even managed to open two additional branches in far-flung villages. And then came the prolonged pandemic. As of today, the small branches have shut, and the main branch is at the mercy of the personal savings of the founders. Hearts of hearts, they know it’s time to pack up. Shuklas are not alone. There are a little over four lakh low-cost private schools in the country. Due to the ongoing pandemic, tens of thousands of these budget schools have either shut or are on the verge of shutting. For schools in villages or small towns, the demise was slow and painful. In this first-person account, Shukla uses his school as a case study to give us a larger perspective.

Gaurav Girija Shukla

Case study 1

Kajal Chandrakar is presently studying in Class 8. Her family has always struggled to make ends meet. Her father is an alcoholic who often abuses his wife as well as Kajal and her younger brother Kundan. He creates a scene every time his wife spends money on books and notebooks. Kajal is a bright and enthusiastic student. She has to commute for an hour and change two buses to reach school, but she never complained.

Our school shut in 2020 after a nationwide lockdown was imposed. Kajal had to spend 24 hours in that toxic environment. In the absence of proper digital equipment, her education suffered. When the school reopened for a few days just before the second covid wave hit in 2021, she was very happy. However, we noticed that there was a significant dip in her grasping abilities. These children, whose parents are not educated, often gain from peer learning. Because of the long absence from the classroom, her enthusiasm level has gone down.

Case study 2

We had a teacher in our school named Gulshan Chandrakar. After completing his Engineering, he could not find a job. The financial condition of his family was not very stable, and he had old parents to look after. So, he accepted a job as a teacher at our school. Though he was not a trained teacher, he was good with children and taught them math in a very simple manner. Sincere and dedicated, he was with us for five years. Owing to many factors, which I shall write about in this story, we struggled to give salaries to our teachers regularly during the prolonged pandemic. He had no option but to move on and today he is working at a medical store.              

For years, the school has been providing affordable and quality education to underprivileged children

While the above-mentioned case studies are from the school run by our family-owned non-profit Abhikalp Foundation at Arang, nearly 40 kms from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur, you will get to hear thousands of such stories from across India. The pandemic has managed to shake the foundations of our education system and the primary victims have been the budget or low-cost private schools (LCPS).

As per the National Independent School Alliance (NISA), there are over four lakh low-cost private schools in India spread across metros, Tier I and Tier II cities, districts, towns, and villages.

Besides, under the Right to Education Act, the government provides free and compulsory elementary education (Class I to 8) to all children. In 2020, there were 10.83 lakh government schools in the country. Parents who are not satisfied with the quality of education at these government schools, often enroll their children in budget or low-cost private schools. In small towns and villages, parents of children studying in such schools fall into the lower-middle class category. They mostly are farmers, daily wage earners, or those who do odd jobs for survival. For most, incomes are cyclic.

While it’s extremely satisfying to provide quality and affordable education to these underprivileged children, running these schools is challenging even under normal circumstances. The pandemic has dealt a massive blow and tens of thousands of such budget schools are on the verge of shutting down permanently. While one can never be prepared for an unprecedented and sudden event like a global pandemic, could we have done something differently to avoid the complete closure of so many low-cost private schools? Can we do something now?

I am not an expert in the field of education, so I won’t be able to comment on what the government should or should not have done. All I know is, for two decades, starting from 2003 until now, my parents – Girija Shukla and Dhruv Kumar Shukla — and I have put in all our efforts so that underprivileged children living in and around Arang could get quality education. This school caters to 30 villages nearby, and, for most children, this school is the only option. Our dream has crashed.

The school won’t survive for one more year unless some miracle happens. On most days, the dinner table conversations are about winding up and moving on. With an emotional heart, I urge you to read this piece. After all, it’s not just about our school. There are thousands of budget schools that have shut or will eventually shut.

Before the pandemic, the school strength was 400. Today, less than 200 students are enrolled

The collapse in a chronological order …

Lockdown confusion

The timing of the 2020 lockdown, which was announced in March, dealt a blow to us. Parents of most children studying in our school are not in a position to pay school fees (Rs 6,000-12,000 annually, excluding transport) at the start of the session or on a regular basis. We don’t insist. Most pay the fees at the end of the session before the final exams. Because of the lockdown, the exams could not take place and the school had to be shut down. So, parents could not pay the school fees. That was the beginning of the end.

In 2021, again, the timing of the second wave and the subsequent lockdown (March-April) coincided with the end of our session. Due to the second lockdown and the closure of the school, again, parents chose not to pay the fees. So, technically, we have not been able to collect 100% school fees from the 2019 session onwards.

It was a tricky situation. We could not pressurize or urge the parents to pay the fees as most of them had lost their jobs during the lockdowns or could not earn. So, though many of them chose not to pay the school fees due to the financial crunch, there was nothing we could do to make them pay.

Imagine our plight when the third wave hit in the beginning of 2022. We are nearing the end of yet another session and the schools have just reopened. For us, there is a lot of anxiety regarding school fees which takes care of a chunk of our expenses.

The digital divide

Here’s a harsh reality. In the Adivasi belt that we are functioning in, there are people who, with great difficulty, manage to buy one basic mobile. Smartphones are a luxury item. Families with two smartphones are almost non-existent. Parents of most of the students studying in our schools have one smartphone, the purpose of which is to send messages and make calls. Because of severe network issues, these smartphones are not used extensively. Most parents are not educated. They were not in a position to help children with online classes or help them with their homework. There was no one to help them resolve the technology and network-related issues.

Similarly, teachers in our school are not trained teachers. They don’t come from very affluent families, so they are in possession of basic gadgets. It was a struggle for them too to learn tasks like conducting classes on Zoom or Team Meet, sharing screens, uploading, and downloading documents or giving assignments and correcting homework online. It was next to impossible to teach all these things to children sitting in far-flung villages. Poor network was our biggest roadblock.

When they somehow managed to get hold of these things, the administration decided to allow teachers to come to school and conduct online classes. That posed newer challenges. When nothing seemed to be working, we even hired a few volunteers who taught different subjects to children, but it was, at best, a temporary solution.

Confusion regarding school fees

In April 2020, Bhupesh Baghel, the chief minister of Chhattisgarh, tweeted saying: “Many private schools are sending messages to students’ parents to deposit school fees. It is not appropriate to pressurize them for fees at such times. All schools have been instructed to postpone the recovery of fees during coronavirus lockdown in Chhattisgarh.”

After many small-scale schools reached out to the administration complaining that the school fee is their only means to pay the salaries of the teachers, the High Court, in July 2020, said the schools were allowed to collect only the tuition fees.

The financially stable private school welcomed the decision, but parents of children studying in schools like ours were not happy. They were of the view that since the school was not functioning and the online classes were proving to be too chaotic wherein children were not learning properly, they should be exempted from paying any fees at all. Even after reducing the fees to half, we could not convince them to pay up. In such a situation, we could not pay our teachers regularly.

Because of the fund crunch, our investments started taking a hit. Let me give you an example. Just before the lockdown, we had bought two school buses for the convenience of children living in faraway villages. That was a very big investment worth lakhs of rupees. We have hardly used the buses, but to date, we are paying the EMIs. The buses are just parked in the compound for the past two years, and that’s pinching us financially. Now we are using our personal savings to pay the EMIs. I know many instances wherein school buses owned by low-cost private schools have been seized by the finance companies because of their inability to pay up.

Students switching to government schools 

Because the parents were not willing to or were not in a position to pay school fees, many of them withdrew the admission of their children from budget schools and enrolled them in government schools where there was no obligation to pay any fees. This rampant switch happened because for these parents who are not educated, educating their children is not a high priority, especially when there is a severe financial crunch and arranging for even two meals a day is a task.

As per the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), 2021, which assessed enrolment patterns, tuition trends and smartphone access of children in rural areas, the government school enrolments had risen from 64.3% in 2018 to 70.3% in 2021. The corresponding decline in private school enrolments has been from 32.5% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2021. In Chhattisgarh, in the 6-14 age group, enrolment in government schools increased from 76.4% in 2018 to 82.9% in 2021.

In our school, before the lockdown, 400 students were enrolled. Today there are less than 200. The students who moved out had been with us from the beginning. We had invested our time, energy, and efforts in them. It was heartbreaking.

Confusion regarding transfer certificates

The shift from low-cost private schools to government schools began in 2020 itself and parents started approaching the schools to get transfer certificates. After some budget schools refused to hand over the transfer certificate saying the parents had to clear the dues first, the state administration intervened.

Soon after, the School Education Department sent a letter to all District Collectors and District Education Officers and urged them to ensure admission of all students leaving private schools. The letter mentioned that during the time of admission of these students, their transfer certificate or earlier class mark sheet should not be demanded. Now, the parents were not under any obligation to clear the dues before cancelling the admission. These flip-flops from the parents and the administration further complicated the situation for us.

Now, either the schools are shut, or half the students have moved out

Just after the second covid wave in 2021, at least 500 private budget schools in Chhattisgarh shut down. Most of these private schools were running in rented buildings and they had to wind up due to their inability to pay the rent. The school managers informed the education department of the state about the closure of their schools. Due to this, the future of about one lakh students who were studying in these schools, was in limbo.

It was unfortunate, but the schools that were running in rented buildings were not as unfortunate as us. Winding up was not difficult for them. In case we have to shut down, what will happen to the school buildings? The school buses? There is a playground and a small computer lab. What do we do with all this? The government guidelines say schools will have to follow proper covid protocols after the schools reopen. We don’t have the money to give salaries. How do we sanitize the whole building periodically?

Hence, at this stage, we don’t know if it makes sense to keep the school running for one more year, with half the student strength and teachers who have lost the enthusiasm and motivation.

Plight of children studying under the Right to Education Act

In Chhattisgarh, as many as 60 lakh students are enrolled in 57,000 private and government schools combined in an academic session. Around 15 lakh students are enrolled in 6,615 private schools of which 31,317 students are studying free of cost under RTE on 25% of the seats. Because of the closure of the private schools in such a large number, about 20,000 students who were studying free of cost in these schools under the RTE Act have also been deprived of free education.

In my school, most of the students who are still enrolled are RTE students. Briefly, the central government releases funds to the state government, the state government releases funds to the schools and that’s how the fee of these children gets paid. It’s a long-winding process. However, there has been a delay in the release of funds from the central government. It’s a double whammy. And, in case, if we have to shut our school, I have no idea what will happen to these children studying under the RTE.

No help from the government, no policy changes  

India’s education sector has received a 11% hike in the 2022 Union Budget this year. Many interesting schemes have been rolled out. However, school managers like us, who were looking for specific measures to bring the education system back on track, are disappointed. We have many questions. Like, will individual schools get financial help? What happens to low-cost private schools? How do we sustain ourselves post pandemic? What about the students who have moved to government schools? Do these schools have the infrastructure to educate so many students? What if there is a fourth wave, and a fifth? What happens to the existing infrastructure if I have to shut down my school? Will I get some waiver on the school buses that have costed me lakhs? Lastly, what was the fault of these children and teachers? How do our schools survive post-pandemic?

Gaurav Girija Shukla is based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. He is the owner of Sangyaa PR and Abhikalp Foundation, which runs the school in Arang.  

This story is a joint effort between Shukla and The Good Story Project’s Swati Subhedar. While Shukla provided case studies, story material, and images, The Good Story Project was responsible for conceptualizing, writing, and structuring the story. Please note that images used in the graphics have been sourced from Abhikalp Foundation and have been used for representation purposes only. They have nothing to do with the data being provided in the graphics.

Also read: When these children living in Adivasi hamlets in Aarey, Mumbai, got smartphones, they danced with joy!

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Rest in peace, “Collarwali” supermom

On January 16, the nation woke up to heartwarming images of the last rites of a tigress being conducted by forest officials and locals in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench Tiger Reserve. Soon, social media handles were flooded with tributes and condolence messages from politicians, bureaucrats, wildlife lovers, and even those who had never met the tigress. The tigress in question was the much-loved showstopper of Pench, who was fondly known Collarwali as she was the first feline to be radio-collared at Pench in 2008. But the collar was just an accessory. What made her special was that in her lifetime she gave birth to 29 cubs — unheard in India and possibly the world – earning her the nickname of supermom. The entire family played an important role in getting Madhya Pradesh the tag of tiger state. After her demise at 16 due to old age, Pench will never be the same again, say those whose daily lives revolved around the Collarwali supermom.

Swati Subhedar

On January 14, T-15 (tiger number), or Collarwali as she was popularly known, came to the Bhura Dev nullah, her favourite stream, to drink water. At that time, there were more than 40 safari vehicles inside Pench Tiger Reserve, which is located in the districts of Seoni and Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh. That evening, all the tourists spotted the tigress and noticed that she could barely walk. Later, she was seen resting near the water body and did not move for two hours. Only her ears twitched from time to time.  

Something was amiss. Soon, forest officials arrived and took her in for treatment. The next evening, on January 15, at around 6 pm, the tigress breathed her last at the age of 16. The post-mortem revealed the cause of death as multiple organ failure due to intestine blockage resulting from old age.

The last video of Collarwali. Video credit: Twitter

Collarwali’s journey – from one of the cubs to supermom

The tigress was born on September 22, 2005, and was numbered T-15. Her mother, who was called badi mata (big mother), was also a famous tigress. Her father was numbered T-1 and was fondly known as Charger.

Collarwali was truly the queen of Pench as between 2008 and 2018, she gave birth to 29 cubs in eight litters. Twenty-five of these cubs have survived to adulthood. This earned her the nickname of supermom in English, and she was fondly called Mataram in Hindi.

In 2008, when she was just two-and-half, she gave birth to her first litter of three cubs, but they died of pneumonia. In the same year, she gave her second litter of four cubs.

Back then, the mother and her four cubs had managed to intrigue many. She became one of India’s best-known tigresses after starring in the BBC wildlife documentary Tiger: Spy in the Jungle which was shot over a period of two years starting in 2008. The documentary team came up with an innovative idea of fitting hidden cameras on elephants. Over the next two years, these elephant-turned-videographers captured endearing footage of the mother and her babies.

A radio collar being fitted on Collarwali. Image credit: Aniruddha Majumder. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

In 2009, a radio collar was fitted on the tigress to track her movements. From here on, she came to be known as Collarwali. The radio collar worked for two years but fell off in 2016. The name Collarwali stayed until her last breath. 

In October 2010, she gave birth to five cubs, in 2012 three cubs, in 2015 four cubs, in 2016 three cubs, and, in 2017, three cubs. Her last litter was in 2018 when she delivered four cubs, which took the total number of cubs to 29.  Collarwali’s mates were tigers named and numbered T-30, chhota male and Rayyakasa, who was her partner from 2012 until her death. She is said to have all her litters from these three mates. 

A practical mother, a fierce predator, a friendly beast

Generally, most tigresses keep their cubs with them for over two years, but Collarwali wanted her children to be independent from a young age. She would encourage them to venture into areas where they could hunt on their own. However, when the cubs were younger, she would make two kills a day for them, said Dr Akhilesh Mishra, a veterinarian, who has treated Collarwali several times.

“Whenever Collarwali would injure herself while hunting, she would simply lay out in the open so that forest officials could spot her and treat her,” he added. This is exactly what she did on January 14, when she knew she needed help. However, this time, her time was up. At 16, she was indeed very old. The average age of tigers who live in the wild is 10-12 years. 

The kind-hearted collarwali with one of her litters. Image credit: Varun Thakkar. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

In her 16 years of life, Collarwali spread much joy and was the most sought after by tourists, wildlife lovers, guides, and safari conductors. “The reason why she was so popular was that she was very comfortable around tourists and safari vehicles. She would mostly strut around the tourist-friendly areas and so it was very easy to spot her. At times, it seemed as if it was her duty not to disappoint the visiting tourists,” said Shivan Kumar, a Bengaluru-based wildlife enthusiast, who has ‘met’ Collarwali on several occasions.    

Collarwali helped Pench and Madhya Pradesh regain their lost glory. According to the 2018 wildlife census report titled ‘Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Preys in India’, at 526, Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of tigers in India. Collarwali’s progenies live in and around Pench.

The grand funeral

Collarwali’s death broke many hearts at the Pench Tiger Reserve. For decades she was the protagonist of Pench. So, the forest officials and locals decided to give her a grand funeral and hold a cremation ceremony. Conservation officers carried Collarwali’s body onto a funeral pyre garlanded with flowers. Shantabai Maryam, a popular leader of the local forest-dwelling adivasi community, lit the funeral pyre of the tigress.

The pictures went viral and hundreds of people, including the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, paid their tributes on social media.

Shantabai Maryam, a popular leader of the local forest-dwelling adivasi community, lit the funeral pyre of the tigress. Image credit: Twitter

Pench will never be the same again …

For years, the lives of people associated with jungle safaris revolved around Collarwali. Most of the incoming tourists were keen to know her story and the safari guides would happily take them to the jungle so that they could meet their beloved tigress. Some of the safari operators and guides we spoke to have been living in Pench for decades and have spotted Collarwali hundreds of times. They all unanimously agreed that Pench will never be the same again. Such was their love for Collarwali that two of them nearly broke down while talking about her.

Video credit: Subhas Bhore, a safari guide

“She was bold and brave, who fiercely protected her ilaka (area)”

An account shared by Subhas Bhore, a safari guide based in Pench

Since the day Collarwali has died, we have not had a single sighting in that area. There is disappointment all around. We all knew that she would go away some day, but now that she is gone, there is a huge void. People will talk about her for the next 10-20 years and, in a way, she will always be alive, as her enter lineage is present in and around Pench.

I have been a safari guide since 2004 and I have been sighting her since 2005. There is an interesting story. Collarwali’s mother handed over two very prominent areas of the tiger reserve to Collarwali and her sister and moved to Maharashtra. Collarwali was fortunate to get an area that was exactly at the center of the tiger reserve. Since then, she never left and has dominated her area. Many tigers, including one of her mates and her daughters, tried to snatch Collarwali’s area, but she, very fiercely fought every single time. In fact, just last month, in December, a fight broke out over dominance, and we could hear two tigers fight. It seems, Collarwali won, yet again. She was very bold and brave.

And her self-respect was intact until her last breath. In her last days, she was too frail, but she would hunt on her own. She never snatched other animals’ prey, something that tigers tend to do in their old age. The forest department never had to worry about feeding an old Collarwali. She was self-sufficient.

I will miss her whenever I will enter her area.

Collarwali was known to be kind and friendly. Image credit: Varun Thakkar. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

“It seemed as if the jungle and all the animals were mourning”

An account by Shourabh Ghosh, the owner of an eco-friendly boutique resort, Kohka Wilderness Camp, in Pench  

Collarwali was the most photographed tigress of Pench. The main reason was that she was very friendly and was never bothered about the tourist vehicles. It happens sometimes that people make a lot of noise out of excitement or if there are kids around, it’s impossible to contain their excitement. But Collarwali never had any problems with such disturbances. In fact, at times, she would come very close to the safari vehicles. Her passing away has created a huge void in our lives. All of us at Pench were extremely sad after her death, but what was unusual was that for the next three-four days, the jungle was eerily silent. It was so unusual that we all talked about it. It seemed as if there were no animals in the jungle. It seemed as if they were hiding in some corners and processing her death. Animals can’t speak or express themselves, but for those three-four days, it felt as if all the animals were dealing with Collarwali’s death in their own ways.

“The sooner we get over her death, the better for us.”  Image credit: Varun Thakkar. The image has been sourced from a BBC story

“She had immense love for her children and her partners”

An account shared by Raam Prasad, a safari guide in Pench

I was one of those who spotted her on the last day. She could not move. Hearts of hearts, we knew her end was nearing, but one is always hopeful.

I have been sighting her since 2005, since she was a newborn baby. I have seen her grow and become a mother to so many wonderful children. It was sad to see her getting old, because it meant she was going to leave us.

It’s a known fact that she was a friendly tigress. But here’s an incredible fact about her. Tigers usually are very territorial. But on some occasions, Collarwali surprised us when she was spotted along with her children from the old litters and the new-borns. Once, she was spotted with her present mate and children from her previous mate. This never happens in the case of tigers. This just proves how much love she had for her partners and children. 

Every morning, whenever we would venture into her area, there always was hope that she would pop up from somewhere. Now, with her death, that hope has died too. The sooner we get over her death, the better for us. 

Also read: The elephant story

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Yet another rough year ends  

When we rang in 2021 a year back, we were hopeful of making a fresh start and erasing the memories of the nightmare that 2020 was. A couple of months later, in April-May 2021, the devastating second wave of covid hit us like a Tsunami. We have entered a brand-new year, however, along with it, a new variant of the virus has clawed into our lives. The first known outbreak of the pandemic started in Wuhan, China, in November 2019. It’s 2022 now. That’s how long the pandemic has lasted. The presence of the virus in our lives for more than two years has led to us hitting the pause button on many of our life plans. Wish there was an option to rewind, reset and wipe out these anxiety-ridden months from our lives that robbed so many of us of milestone moments and changed the course of life for many. While the prolonged pandemic has impacted us all, in this story we bring to you some voices who in their own words have narrated the impact, takeaways, and learnings from the pandemic. Keep scrolling to read the six snippets.

Swati Subhedar

Prayagraj-based Abhishek Shukla started an initiative in 2016 and since then he has been teaching children living in the slums. During the pandemic, he also opened a (sanitary) pad bank for girls. Read his story

“This pandemic has exposed the wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged”

Abhishek Shukla is the founder of an initiative named Shuruaat: Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, which is based in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. In this first-person account, he narrates how the pandemic gave him an opportunity to start a new initiative.

I started my initiative Shuruaat: Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki in 2016. I came across a girl begging at a signal. I decided to visit her basti (slum) along with her. I was shocked to see that there were many girls like her who were miles away from education. I was, back then, preparing for my civil services exam. I gave up my dream and started teaching children living in slums. Many volunteers joined me, and we started conducting morning and evening classes for children living in slums and on footpaths. We were also taking classes on the first platform of the Prayagraj railway station. Most of these children were beggars and drug addicts, 50% had never been to school and the rest were dropouts. Over the years, we also managed to enrol many children in government and private schools.

Only the initial days of the 2020 lockdown were difficult for us. Later on, with the help of our volunteers, we distributed education kits and encouraged the older children in the slums to teach the younger ones. Presently, baring our batch on the railway platform where we have to follow covid protocols, all our batches are now functioning like they were in the pre-covid period.

In fact, many more children are now a part of our initiative. In the last two years, lots of children dropped out of schools because parents, mostly from economically struggling sections of the society, were not able to pay the school fees. We are now encouraging more volunteers to join us as the number of children has gone up.  

The pandemic also gave us an opportunity to start some more initiatives. During the lockdown, we realized that girls living in the slums faced many problems during their periods. First, the nearby shops were closed and not all have the resources to commute just to buy pads. Second, most daily wage earners were not earning, so they could not afford to buy expensive pads. Third, the lockdown impacted the availability of subsidized sanitary pads distributed by the government. Keeping these issues in mind, we opened a few branches of sanitary pad banks through which we distribute free-of-cost pads. Many girls are now “account holders” in these banks.

One thing that the pandemic has taught all of us is that we will now have to be prepared for any eventuality. We are into social work, and we were quickly able to tweak our strategies and continue to help people. However, there were many instances wherein help could not reach the beneficiaries. Also, the pandemic has, once again, exposed the wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged sections of our society. Our long-term plan should be to work towards bridging these societal anomalies.  

In 2004, Raipur-based Gaurav Girija Shukla and his family started three schools for children from underprivileged backgrounds and Adivasi communities. However, because of the ongoing pandemic, the schools are now on the verge of closing. Read how the pandemic impacted him

“The pandemic crashed our dream of providing affordable education to underprivileged children from Adivasi communities”

Gaurav Girija Shukla is the founder of Sangyaa PR and Abhikalp Foundation and is based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. In this first-person account, he narrates how the pandemic has led to the near closure of the schools they had opened for children from Adivasi communities and underprivileged backgrounds.  

In 2004, my mother, Girija Shukla, and all of us, embarked on a noble mission of providing affordable and quality education to rural children. Together, through our foundation named Abhikalp, we started a school in our hometown in Arang, which is on the outskirts of Raipur. Many parents living in the nearby villages, who were daily wage earners, farmers and belonged to the Adivasi communities, started sending their children to our school. Over the years, we managed to open three schools in and around Arang.

Until the pandemic hit in 2020, these schools were imparting quality education to more than 500 students from nursery to 10th standard. A proper infrastructure was in place and good teachers were hired. Things were looking bright, and it was immensely satisfying to see that we were able to accomplish our mission of providing affordable education to underprivileged children.

That was around two years back. Today, despite putting in all our savings and efforts, most of our conversations revolve around winding up. We had to shut the two schools we had opened in faraway villages. Though we intend to run the schools, the stakeholders are now discussing what to do with the existing infrastructure and school buildings.

The pandemic was a deal-breaker. These children belong to economically weaker sections of the society, and most are first-generation school-goers. We could never fully switch to online and mobile education because of various limitations. The parents were struggling to meet ends during the lockdown. They were not able to pay the school fees, as a result of which we could not give salaries to our teachers for long. The pandemic has dragged for too long and, and it’s not over yet. We did not get any help from the administration. The least they could have done was to issue very clear guidelines about payment of fees and reopening of schools during the lockdown and later on.

This is probably the last year for the school. Opting for funding is our last resort, but we are also aware of the fact that companies, corporates and independent entrepreneurs have also incurred massive losses because of the ongoing pandemic. We are heartbroken that innocent children from economically weaker sections of the society and Adivasi communities are going to suffer the most. This school was the most cherished dream of my mother who, among all the stakeholders, is the most shattered with these recent developments. We have no control over the pandemic. We just feel helpless and angry. Wish there was a way to save the school, that is the only source of education for many children, especially girls. The pandemic has crashed our dream.

Rahibai Popere, popularly known as “seed woman” never went to school, but has valuable lessons for all of us and the farmers. She recently received Padma Shri from the President of India. Read what she feels about the pandemic

“The only positive outcome of the pandemic is … more and more people are now opting for healthy eating”

Rahibai Popere is the winner of the prestigious Padma Shri award.

Working from her remote village — Kombhalne in Ahmednagar’s Akola tehsil, about 125 km from Pune in Maharashtra — Popere is taking farming back to its roots. She is known as the “seed woman”, who has pioneered a movement to preserve indigenous seeds. She has 114 varieties of 53 crops, preserved in traditional ways. On November 8, 2021, she received Padma Shri from the President of India Shri Ram Nath Kovind. Below are her views on the ongoing pandemic.

If you want to read more about Popere’s journey, click here and here.

My phone has not stopped ringing after receiving the Padma Shri. I had to wait to receive the prestigious award as because of the pandemic, the ceremony got postponed. But that’s okay. No one was in a mood to celebrate anyway. So many people were dying.

In my entire life, I have not seen something like a pandemic or a total lockdown. Though I live in a small village, the impact could be felt here as well. People could not earn money, there was no work, children could not go to school, and the elderly who need medical assistance, suffered too. It did not spare anyone. And, sadly, it’s not over it. Just a few days back, I attended an event in Ahmednagar (a district in Maharashtra). I came to know just now that some of the dignitaries have tested positive. Now I will have to get myself tested so that I don’t pass it on to my grandchildren.

However, one thing that I am happy about is that now more and more people are bending towards eating healthy and desi food. More and more people are consuming grains like jwari, bajra, millets and oats. This is a positive thing. I just hope this is not a temporary thing and for the sake of our children and future generations, we make healthy eating a way of life. 

Read how the pandemic changed the life of Kalpana Swamy who is a corporate communication professional presently based in Mumbai. Swamy is fond of cooking, which is therapeutic for her. Cooking different kids of cuisines helped her keep her morale up during the pandemic-induced lockdown

“For once we are flowing along with the tide. Hope this time the tide is in our stride”

Kalpana Swamy is a corporate communication professional based in Mumbai. In this first-person account, she narrates how, because of the pandemic, she could not bid adieu to her father.  

“Life is what happens when you are busy planning” … this was just an intriguing quote for me till last year. But God has his way of showing us the answers to what we seek subconsciously. When the pandemic hit us in 2020, everything came to a standstill, and we felt what else could go wrong or it can’t get any worse. But not many knew that 2020 was just the first phase of the apocalypse. We were all running and suddenly the master above shouted “statue” and we stayed put where we were, indefinitely. But for how long could anyone stay put? There were rents to be paid, groceries to be bought and families to be fed.

When the calendar changed the dates, everyone was hopeful of a better year ahead without knowing that the worst was yet to come. The year 2021 seemed like the extention of the apocalypse that had set in the previous year. Many people lost their jobs, vaccine hesitancy created havoc, non-compliance of rules resulted in the second wave, which was much deadlier. It seemed people who had started getting comfortable being under house arrest were shaken with a jolt of miseries of many sorts.

Personally, my life changed, and it felt as if I was watching my own life in montages. We had a cushiony, comfortable life abroad. My parents were settled in their cosy perch back home. My daughter had gotten used to her online school and was enjoying the transition. Suddenly, we had to pack our bags, and move back to India. If this was not enough, I was in for a rude shock when I lost my father two days ahead of my India travel. I couldn’t meet him at the last moment, nor could I give him a farewell. This void will remain forever. But life has not ended for family around, and with whatever grief we have, we have to continue living with the memories of our loved ones.

Now, another year has ended and here we are, hopeful again! Life is happening and we have stopped planning. For once we are flowing along with the tide and hope this time, the tide is in our stride!”

Ashwini Nair, a Mumbai-based freelance content writer, talks about how her son misses going to school. The last time he went to school was in March 2020

“These kids missed the joy of wearing their first uniform”

Ashwini Nair is a freelance content writer based in Mumbai. In this first-person account, Nair talks about how her child is missing the joy of going to school.  

The last school-type place my son saw was his playschool in March 2020. It was Animal Day where he went dressed as a leopard and got sent home early because of mild sniffles. The school shut down over the next week and now, since the past eight months, a ‘for rent’ sign hangs at where it used to be. Every time we go around the area, my kid points it out and says: “That’s where my school was.” He has already forgotten what it felt like to play with school friends and attend a class without his mother hovering over him. The change in attitudes, loss of social skills, and lack of friends and outside play is a completely different story. But, more importantly, the loss of childhood, outdoor fun to locked rooms, and gloomy indoors is simply despairing. Nothing can beat the joy of wearing your first uniform or the smell of a new school bag and it’s just sad that these kids will never get to experience it.

Students at Ajjibaichi Shala, a school for grandmothers. In 2012, Yogendra Bangar, a school teacher, opened this school in Fangane village, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from Mumbai. Before the pandemic, 30 grandmothers in the age group of 60 to 90 were studying in this school.

“No pandemic can stop Ajjibaichi Shala from functioning”

This is a first-person account by Yogendra Bangar, the man behind Ajjibaichi shala (a school for grandmothers). In 2012, Bangar, a Zilla Parishad school teacher, got transferred to the only government school in Fangane village, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from state capital Mumbai. In 2016, he opened a school for grandmothers, known as Ajjibaichi Shala.

To read more about Ajjibaichi Shala, click here.

We had to shut the school in March 2020 when covid cases started mounting. At that time, 30 grandmothers, in the age group of 60-90 years, were coming to the school.

When we opened the school in 2016, the grandmothers had to attend the school daily, for two hours in the afternoon, but after two years, we started calling them over the weekend as they also had to help with household chores. Our primary objective was to teach them how to write their names. They went beyond that. Today, all of them put their signatures on official documents and no longer have to go through the humiliation of giving their thumb impressions. They can read short stories, do basic calculations and most can read religious books. There are very few who can’t but that’s because they are too old and can’t see.

During the lockdown, the school was shut, but the passionate grandmothers continued to study at home. They would take the help of their grandchildren, and sometimes, Sheetal More, their teacher would help them. As they are senior citizens, we could not open the school after the lockdown, but they continued with their self-studies.

Recently, in December 2021, we opened the school, but soon we will have to shut it again because of the new variant. The grandmothers are disappointed, but the recent development has not deterred their motivation. If this phase drags for long, and we are not able to open school, we will give them textbooks so that they can study at home until normalcy resumes. I will make sure the school continues to function. No pandemic can stop Ajjibaichi Shala from functioning.

To read our other covid-related stories, click here.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

The ghost villages of Uttarakhand

People move their place of habitation because of social, political, or economic reasons. Often, natural disasters lead to sudden displacement of people. However, over the past few decades, large-scale human migration has been happening because of climate change. In India, a rise in extreme weather events like droughts, floods, heatwaves, and hailstorms is fuelling climate migration and it’s the poor who are forced to abandon their homes, land, and livelihoods. The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 puts India among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change. Today, on International Migrants Day, we kick-start a three-part series that will look at various aspects of climate change migration in the country. In the first part, we take you to Uttarakhand, home to several ghost villages, to understand why people, especially farmers, here have been migrating.

Swati Subhedar

On February 7, 2021, a disaster struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. A devastating flash flood ravaged through three valleys — Rishi Ganga, Dhauliganga, and Alaknanda. It swept away the unfinished Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Project and severely damaged the Rishi Ganga Hydropower Project.

The state administration requested a geotechnical team’s visit to the site of flash floods for assessment. The team’s finding concluded that the cause of flash floods was the collapse of a hanging glacier — 15 football fields long and five across — breaking off high in the mountains. A hanging glacier is a body of ice that breaks off abruptly.

In the Himalayas, about 10,000 glaciers are receding at a rate of 100 to 200 feet per decade as global temperatures rise. The glaciers in Uttarakhand are very sensitive and susceptible to climate change. Supra-glacial lakes are formed on the surface of glaciers when the snow melts, and the state has 809 such lakes. The Geological Survey of India has found 13 of the 486 glacial lakes in the state to be vulnerable. A glacial lake can breach and cause floods like the one in Chamoli due to avalanche or cloudburst, a major quake, or other geological factors.

A disturbing video of glacier melt in Chamoli.
Video credit: From the Twitter handle of journalist Shiv Aroor

More than 70 people lost their lives in the Chamoli flash flood tragedy and later the government declared 136 persons who were reported to be missing as “presumed dead” so that the affected families could get early compensation. The year 2021 has turned out to be the second-worst in terms of loss of lives in such calamities after 2013 when the Kedarnath flash floods had taken thousands of lives. According to data with the State Operation Emergency Center (SEOC), nearly 300 people died, 66 were reported missing and over 100 people sustained injuries in weather-related calamities this year that include events like flash floods, cloudbursts, avalanches, landslides, and mudflows.

A recent study, titled ‘Locked Houses, Fallow Lands: Climate Change and Migration in Uttarakhand, India’, conducted by the Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) mentions that Uttarakhand’s annual average maximum temperature may increase by 1.6-1.9 degrees Celsius between 2021 and 2050. The study focuses on how climate change impacts — like rising temperatures, increasing glacial melt, and changing rainfall patterns — could affect livelihoods and thereby shape migration patterns in Uttarakhand.

The report identifies three main areas of action for policymakers — preparing for demographic changes resulting from migration, creating alternate livelihood options in the hill districts to revitalize the economy and revisiting the state’s climate change action plan as well as the state’s agricultural policies in the wake of out-migration from hill districts.

Rescue workers looking for missing people at one of the hydropower projects after the Chamoli flash floods in February. Image credit: From the Twitter handle of Affinity Magazine

Migration and the ghost villages of Uttarakhand

The state has 6,338 village panchayats and 16,500 villages. However, it’s common to find abandoned villages where no one lives. These villages are known as ghost villages. All one can find here are locked doors and hints of civilization that once existed. The eerie silence makes you wonder what must have led to families leaving lock, stock, and barrel, never to return.

As per the data revealed in 2018 by the Rural Development and Migration Commission set up by the state, the hill state has around 700 ghost villages and more than 3.83 lakh people have left their homes between 2007 and 2017. Most of the migration to the plains in Uttarakhand is of young people. The data shows that 29% are 25 or younger, 42% are between 26 and 35 and 29% are over 35 years.

A Right to Information (RTI) query filed by Hemant Gaunia, an activist based in the Nainital district, revealed in January this year that a total of 1.18 lakh people have migrated out of Uttarakhand permanently, while 3.83 lakh have migrated in search of work and better life but keep visiting their native places in the hills. It also mentions that people living in 3,946 villages have migrated ‘permanently’ which implies that these villages also fit the definition of ghost villages.  

Rakesh Juglal, Kalawati Devi, Anju Devi and Goli Devi … the last four residents of Bhel Dunga village. Image credit: From the Twitter handle of Tanmoy.

These ghost villages can be commonly seen in the Pauri Garhwal district where 186 out of 298 villages have been totally or partially depopulated. For instance, Thalda village in the district once had around 52 houses and a population of 175. However, today, less than 30 families remain in the village and the population has shrunk to lower than 100. There are many villages where the population ranges from eight to 10, and in some places only two-three people are residing.

“I have been to some of these ghost villages. In most villages, all the families have migrated, never to return. In some villages, you can find 3-4 elderly people. It’s common to see locked houses, collapsing structures and farms full of weeds and shrubs,” said Robin Chauhan, a journalist based in Uttarakhand.

He added: “There are many reasons why people here have been migrating. The primary reasons are unemployment, lack of medical facilities and lack of schools and educational institutions. Some people returned during the lockdown, but a majority have gone back. Life is tough on the hills. People don’t want the next generation to suffer. They migrate so that their children have more avenues of earning money. The farmers, however, have been gradually migrating because of things that are beyond their control. Erratic rainfall, drying water bodies and lack of irrigation facilities have turned the land barren at an unprecedented rate.”   

The farmers living in the hills have mountain-sized problems”. Image credit: Aanand Mani, a farmer

Farmers, climate change and migration

“It’s for everyone to see that the climate is changing, and the Himalayas are melting. However, it’s the farmers who are getting impacted and are forced to migrate. If steps are not taken today to stop this large-scale migration, that day is not far when the government will have to give money to farmers to stay back and do farming,” said Aanand Mani, a farmer based in Bhimtal, a town in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand. It is situated at an altitude of 1,370 meters above sea level. “My farm is in the foothill, yet it gets difficult. The farmers living in the hills have mountain-sized problems,” he added.

The PIK-TERI study mentions that climate change in the state will increasingly force farmers to abandon farming at high altitudes and move to the plains over the next 30 years. The state government’s action plan on climate change identified three ways climate change may impact agriculture — increased water stress, increased risk of floods and changes in crop yields. Other factors include changed crop season, shifting cultivation zones for certain crops, and drying up of perennial streams.

“The monsoon pattern has changed for sure. It rained so much in February this year. I have not seen so much rain in February in the past 15-20 years. Yes, our agriculture is monsoon fed, but so much rain damaged our rajma (kidney beans), tamatar (tomato), pahadi kheera (cucumber) and mooli (raddish) crop. We used to cultivate kathal (jackfruit) in March-April. Now, we are cultivating it in October-November,” said Anil Pandey, a farmer based in Nainital district. He has his own farm, but he is also into organic farming and is part of a network of 1,200 farmers who have switched to organic farming as it is economically more feasible.

He added: “We are still better placed. Those living in higher altitudes do step farming. Their farms are smaller in size, and the problems manifold. They usually grow potatoes and ginger but could never switch to cash crops. They eat what they grow, so they can’t rely on their farms for a living, and there is nothing else to do on the hills. Water scarcity is a big problem. The spring-fed rivers are drying because trees are being cut to make dams and roads. These rivers used to be a source of irrigation. Rainfall is not sufficient anymore, or it rains a lot. The extraction of groundwater through borewells has impacted the water table. Constant drilling of mountains for tourism is leading to landslides.”

While the previous generation of farmers is not willing to give up yet for emotional or sentimental reasons, the younger generation has made up their minds. “Ninety-eight per cent youngsters want to go out. Their parents are not stopping them. They have suffered enough. They don’t want their children to touch farming. Can you imagine how disastrous that is?” asked Mani, the Bhimtal-based farmer.

Farmers in the hills eat what they grow, so they can’t rely on their farms for a living, and there is nothing else to do on the hills. Image credit: Aanand Mani

As per Narendra Mehra, a farmer based in Haldwani, both central and state governments have launched various schemes for irrigation and are taking steps to contain migration, but the results are not visible. “There is so much corruption that the schemes that look so fancy on paper are not even reaching the beneficiaries. The officials distribute seeds very randomly. They themselves don’t know the crops and their production patterns. Wild boars and monkeys destroy our entire produce. The problems that I am listing are not even related to climate change. The government and the farmers have no control over the climate. But why can’t we focus on manmade problems and find solutions? What about compensation? The October rains ruined paddy worth Rs 100 crore in Udham Singh Nagar district. Last I heard a committee was formed to evaluate losses so that compensation could be given. If you are asking me if the government is taking any concrete steps to stop migration, the answer is no,” he said.

What farmer Mani from Bhimtal said about his brother shows how the problem of migration is altering the social fabric of the state. “My brother is 36. We have not been able to find a girl for him. Likewise, there are many youngsters in the state who are facing similar problems. They are earning well but marriage is still an issue. People from the hills who migrate elsewhere, work in hotels and earn Rs 2,000-3,000 and are all settled. That is the unfortunate truth. This could become a big problem in the state in the coming years,” said Mani.        

(This is Part-1 of our three-part series on climate change and migration) 

Also read: Ladakh is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Pandemic roadblock: The uphill task of reviving mountain tourism

International Mountain Day is celebrated on December 11 to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development, and to build alliances that will bring positive change to mountain people and the environment around the world. In India, mountain tourism thrives in the Himalayan region. However, the pandemic has created a crisis of livelihoods for mountain communities. Aptly, the theme of this year’s Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The Good Story Project ‘visits’ the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the Union Territory of Ladakh that border the mighty Himalayas to understand how the pandemic has affected communities living here and how difficult revival of mountain tourism is going to be.

Swati Subhedar

The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) is spread across 13 states and Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Assam and West Bengal. It stretches across 2,500 km and nearly 50 million people reside in this region. The IHR extends from the Indus River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east. With its towering snowy peaks, majestic landscapes, pilgrimage destinations, rich biodiversity, and cultural heritage, the IHR has been, for decades, attracting tourists from India and across the world.

Tourism provides financial and employment opportunities for people residing in these mountain regions, and it brings revenues and profits for state governments. In the past few years, tourism in the IHR has got impacted due to natural calamities or safety and security reasons, however, the prolonged pandemic has dealt a massive blow. Unfortunately, it’s the local people and communities living in these mountain regions – most depend on the inflow of tourists for survival – have suffered the most.

While two lockdowns in two years brought tourism in the Himalayan region to a complete standstill, sporadic episodes of revival were followed by dampeners. The latest one that has shaken the tourism industry is the new variant of the virus – Omicron – that is threatening to ground airlines, and it may lead to people putting their travel plans on hold for now. In such a scenario, revival in tourism is going to be an uphill task.

Keeping the many challenges in mind, the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The United Nations Environment Program and United Nations World Tourism Organization define sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.

The Good Story Project speaks to various stakeholders living in the mountains of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These destinations are popular among a range of tourists … adventure-seekers, pilgrims, families, solo travellers, and those who often run to the mountains for the much-desired peace of mind. However, the communities here have been facing a unique set of challenges. The pandemic has just added to their woes.

With its towering snowy peaks, majestic landscapes, pilgrimage destinations, rich biodiversity, and cultural heritage, the Indian Himalayan Region has been, for decades, attracting tourists from India and across the world. Image: Swati Subhedar

Ladakh: A ticking time bomb

Ladakh is a cold desert in India, which lies in the Great Himalayas. It has the mighty Karakoram range in the north, and, in the south, it is bound by the Zanskar mountains. Several rivers flow through Ladakh, which form deep valleys and gorges and many glaciers are found in the region. Life here is harsh, but historically, Ladakh has always been a self-sustained region. People grew their own food and there were enough resources for people to sustain themselves.

This was until Ladakh was opened to tourism in 1974.

As per the Tourism Ministry data, while 16,449 tourists visited Ladakh in 1994, it saw an inflow of about 2.79 lakh tourists in 2019. The rise in the number of tourists has pumped in money in job scarce Ladakh, but it has also had a detrimental effect on natural resources.   

“Today, Ladakh is literally sitting on a ticking time bomb. The rapid growth in unregulated tourism over the years has put tremendous pressure on natural resources. In the early nineties, there were only around 80 hotels and guest houses here. Today, there are more than 1,000 registered and unregistered hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast (B&B) set-ups just in Leh (town),” said Vilayat Ali, who runs a sustainable tourism company called Pristine Ladakh.

He added: “Almost all hotels are pumping out water through bore machines for their daily use. Some big hotels pump out additional water for their swimming pools. The glaciers which are the main source of recharge for the groundwater are depleting at a very fast rate. The Khardong glacier – the main source of stream water for the Leh town — has almost vanished. The level of water in the Indus Rivers too has gone down to more than 50% in the last decade. The day is not far when there won’t be any groundwater left.”

Depletion of natural resources is not the only problem. Every summer, Leh generates more than 60 tons of garbage. “Earlier, as there was no waste management system in Ladakh, it was dumped in an open area abandoned by the Indian Army called ‘Bombguard’. The garbage was burnt every night and every morning one could see a thick fume of smoke in and around Leh. Today, even though Leh has a solid waste management plant, the unwanted garbage still gets burnt at Bombguard. Both, tourists are locals are to be blamed for waste generation,” said Ali.     

Every summer, Leh generates more than 60 tons of garbage. Image credit: zerowasteladakh.com

From primarily being an agricultural economy, Ladakh’s economy is now heavily dependent on tourism. Many of Ladakh’s residents, especially the young, draw their income from these activities. As a result of the shift to tourism, locals are gradually giving up farming – their traditional source of livelihood.

“Before pandemic, everyone was making money. The tourism business was lucrative, so everyone jumped into it. Some opened hotels, some drove taxis, and some became guides; practically everyone switched to tourism. Gradually tourists became our primary source of income. The pandemic hit us hard. Suddenly there was nothing to fall back on. The only good part about the pandemic was that there was no pollution,” said Tashi Tsange, owner of Tukchu Homestay in Leh.

The homestay and hotel owners are keeping their fingers crossed for next summer and soon Ladakh, like earlier, will be full of tourists. So, what is the solution?

“Tourism should be encouraged as long as it’s sustainable, benefits the local communities, and does not harm the environment. The present-day Ladakh does not meet any of these criteria. Unregulated tourism has made Ladakhis rich, but it has done irreparable damage. Ladakh needs to regulate tourism. Bhutan has done it. We need to direct tourists to other less explored destinations so that locals living there can benefit too. Lastly, homestays should be promoted, prominence should be given to organically grown fruits and vegetables, and we need to find eco-friendly alternatives for plastic,” said Ali.   

In the early hours of June 17, 2013, a flash flood came down upon the overflowing banks of the Chorabari lake in Uttarakhand. Carrying huge amounts of silt and rocks, it destroyed lives, houses, and everything else that came its way. Thousands lost their lives. Image credit: The Indian Express

Uttarakhand: Needed desperately … a concrete plan to sustain tourism      

Most of the northern parts of Uttarakhand are part of the Greater Himalayan ranges and are covered by the high Himalayan peaks and glaciers. Eighty-six per cent of states’ geographical area is mountains, and there are several famous peaks in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of the state – like, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Bhagirathi, Neelkanth, Gaumukh etc – that are preferred by tourists.

However, the four most economically lucrative peaks are Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri and the holy pilgrimage to these four mountains is known as the Char Dham Yatra. The yatra provides employment opportunities to lakhs of people living in these mountain regions, and also tour operators and yatra organisers spread across the country. It also forms an economic ecosystem that benefits the shrines, the areas around these shrines and generates significant revenue for the state.

Picture this. In 2019, the Kedarnath Yatra broke all the previous records and generated a revenue of Rs 400 crore. The other three destinations – Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – too earn revenues to the tunes of several crores every year. Those who benefit from the inflow of pilgrims are porters, palki and pony service operators, owners of hotels, lodges, dharamshalas, dhabas and small restaurants, guides, tour operators, temple committees, self-help groups that sell pahadi food, prasad and other products and private helicopter services.   

In 2019, nearly 38 lakh pilgrims visited the shrines. In 2020, the yatra was put on hold and in 2021, the route was open only for two months after which the Uttarakhand government postponed the pilgrimage till further orders. “The locals were really happy when the yatra started. They were, to some extent, able to mitigate the losses incurred last year. However, looking at the inflow of tourists, the state government postponed it. Though we have started getting enquiries for next year, the past two years have been tough for the locals who were dependent on the Char Dham Yatra to make money,” said Suryaprakash Kothari, who is associated with the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN).

While the official loss numbers have not been released, one can only imagine how badly those dependent on the yatra must have suffered. There are people who wait for the yatra to begin every year as it helps them make enough money for the rest of the year.

The Char Dham Yatra sites. Image credit: http://www.jagran.com

“The unfortunate fact is, it’s always the poor who suffer. No one saw the pandemic coming, and no one could have imagined that the Char Dham Yatra, a mode of survival for many, would get cancelled for two consecutive years. Only those who were in a position to quickly innovate their business models or could find other avenues to earn money did not struggle during the lockdown and thereafter. However, say, a dhaba owner or a tea stall owner, the poorest of poor, who did not have any other option, are still struggling, and will continue to struggle,” said Umesh Pandey, a travel expert, who is associated with the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN).    

In July this year, to compensate for the economic loss due to cancellation of the Char Dham Yatra for the second consecutive year, the state announced a relief package worth around Rs 200 crore, set to benefit over 1.63 lakh people in the state.

“How will this one-time payment help? And the government has not taken into account people who are not registered. The pandemic is not the first, and it’s not going to be the last disaster that is going to impact people living in the mountain areas. Disasters related to climate change are already on the rise. If we talk about sustainable mountain tourism, then the primary task is to find permanent solutions to at least some of the problems faced by people living in the mountains who are associated with the travel and tourism industry so that an unprecedented event like a pandemic does not empty their bank accounts. The government has talked about sustainable mountain tourism but has never shared what concrete steps it plans to take,” said Pandey.  

The stunning Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. Image: Swati Subhedar

Himachal Pradesh: Reaching out to shepherds, artisans

“Total nuksaan ho gaya. Business hi thapp ho gaya (We suffered massive losses. Our business went bust),” said Sukhbir Singh, who runs a manufacturing unit and a store in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. Singh, like many others in the state, is a part of the small-scale industries that manufacture and sell the world-acclaimed Pashmina shawls.

Pashmina refers to animal-hair fibre forming the downy undercoat of a domesticated variety of goat called the Changthangi goat. These goats used for pashmina shed their winter coat every spring. One goat sheds approximately 80–170 grams of the fibre. These goats provide the wool for Kashmir’s famous Pashmina shawls that commands huge demand worldwide.

If you visit the northeren region of Himachal Pradesh; in particular the cold desert mountains of Spiti and a few remote villages in the mountain regions of Lahaul and Chamba districts, you will come across many nomadic shepherd tribes who herd sheep and goats and move from one place to the other. The pashmina wool used in manufacturing units in the state also comes from these shepherds.   

However, since the 2020 pandemic, the entire end-to-end chain of Pashmina manufacturers and sellers has got affected. “Our artisans who used to weave Pashmina shawls are mostly from Nepal and other remote villages of Himachal. They went back to their native places just ahead of the 2020 lockdown and have not returned since then. In the absence of these artisans, manufacturing of handmade shawls came to a standstill and because of fewer tourists, the business has got affected,” said Singh.

The Pashmina shawls manufactured in Himachal are also exported. “Our business is not entirely dependent on the incoming tourists. Usually, the machine-manufactured shawls are exported and the ones that are weaved by local artisans are sold in the domestic market. However, the lockdowns affected both the business avenues and we are staring at huge losses,” said Gurcharan Singh, a manufacturer of Pashmina shawls, who has his manufacturing unit in the Bashing village on the Kullu-Manali highway.

He added: “Every manufacturing unit has 30-35 artisans and not all owners could afford to give salaries during the pandemic. In the organized and unorganized sector, nearly 12,000 artisans are working in the state and the government has not given the artisans or manufacturers any compensation.”

“It’s a good sign that the government is now also thinking about the forgotten lot, like the shepherds”. Image: Swati Subhedar

In a welcome move, the Himachal Pradesh government announced in June 2020 that from 2021 fiscal, it will provide 638 goats of the Changthangi and Chegu breeds to families in the Pashmina producing snow-bound areas in Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts and Pangi in Chamba district under the National Livestock Mission. Under the mission, 29 units, each comprising 10 does and one buck of both Changthangi and Chegu species will be provided.

Each unit will cost Rs 70,000. Ninety per cent cost will be borne by the Central government, while the state and the beneficiary will share the remaining cost in equal proportion. The hill state records about 1,000 kg Pashmina wool production annually at present and aims to double it in next five years.  

“This won’t solve all our problems, but it’s a good move. Presently, we are importing Pashmina wool from Kashmir, which is costly. This way we can buy wool from Himachal, save that cost and manufacture more Pashmina products, or pay our artisans more,” said Singh.   

One of the aspects of sustainable mountain tourism is that it is a way to preserve and promote local art, crafts and high-value products. The state government’s planned move to boost Pashmina wool production in the state will help people in the mountain regions of Himachal who are into Pashmina business, including the shepherds who fall under below the poverty line (BPL) category.  

“When tourism started booming, local people, irrespective of what their original professions were, switched to the tourism industry. I know for a fact that many Pashmina artisans switched to tourism because they were not earning enough. It’s a good sign that the government is now also thinking about the forgotten lot, like the shepherds or Pashmina artisans. This is also one way of sustaining mountain tourism,” said Jitendra Bharadwaj, who is associated with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC).

Also read: Lockdown and the hauntingly beautiful Spiti Valley.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Seven continents, seven summits and Mission Inclusion 

These days, Chhattisgarh-based Chitrasen Sahu, 28, is extremely busy. As I write this story, he is finishing travel formalities and trying to secure the last leg of funding for his upcoming expedition to Mount Acconcagua. At 6,962 meters, it is the highest mountain in the Americas. Previously, in 2019, he had scaled Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, in 2020 Mount Kosciuszko, mainland Australia’s tallest mountain, and in 2021 Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia. He is the first double amputee from India to achieve this and his aim is to scale seven summits present in seven continents. “Half human robo” Sahu, also a blade runner, a national-level wheelchair basketball player and swimmer, a motivational speaker and an inclusion and disability rights activist, is on “Mission Inclusion,” and this is his incredible story.

Swati Subhedar

On a humid summer day on June 4, 2014, Chitrasen Sahu, 21, a civil engineering graduate, boarded a train heading to Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh from his hometown Balod. At Bhatapara railway station, Sahu got down to buy a bottle of water. Little did he know that his life was going to change forever, and an ill-fated moment was going to snatch away from him his dream of joining the armed forces.

While he was buying water, the train started moving. His hand slipped while trying to board the train, and his feet got stuck between the platform and the moving coach. He lost one leg, and due to medical negligence, a few weeks later, the doctors had to amputate his other leg as well.

Sahu, belonging to a farmer’s family in Balod district of Chhattisgarh, may have had to let go of his dream of joining the armed forces, however, the incident only strengthened the fighting spirit with which he was born. It’s been just seven years, however, in less than a decade, Sahu, now 28, has an impressive portfolio under his belt. Some of his achievements include being a national para-swimmer and a blade-runner, representing Chhattisgarh at the national level in para-basketball and carrying out skydiving and scuba diving with artificial limbs. Over the years, he has also groomed himself to be a motivational speaker and aims to help other persons with disabilities in every possible way.

However, his most distinguished achievement, which has earned him the nickname of ‘half human robo,’ is that he is the first double amputee from India to scale Mount Kilimanjaro (the highest peak in Africa), Mount Kosciuszko (mainland Australia’s tallest mountain) and Mount Elbrus (the highest peak in Russia). His mission is to scale the seven highest summits present in seven continents, just to prove that there is nothing that persons with disabilities can’t achieve. After ticking three peaks off his bucket list, he now desires to scale Mount Denali (North America), Mount Everest (Asia), Mount Vinson (Antarctica) and is presently looking to secure funds so that he could scale Mount Aconcagua (South America) in January 2022. Sahu believes by scaling these summits he should be able to achieve his goal of ‘Mission Inclusion’ — an initiative started by him whose objective is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities.

Why the need for Mission Inclusion?

“While standing in a row, we may come across as the odd ones out, however, one must acknowledge that we are still standing in the same row as the others,” said Sahu, who is presently working as an assistant engineer with the Chhattisgarh Housing Board in Raipur. As it happens with most people with disabilities, Sahu had to deal with a lot of negativity that random people threw at him soon after the accident. It was not easy to snap out of it, but Sahu managed thanks to his supportive parents and close friends and later took upon himself the responsibility to motivate other persons with disabilities so that the journey becomes slightly easier for them.

“The aim of my initiative Mission Inclusion is to bring behavioral change in society towards persons with disabilities. In our country, people stare at persons with disabilities. Then, they immediately want to know your story. Mission Inclusion aims to make people aware. For instance, the basic thing is you should always ask before helping a person with any kind of disability, rather than just jumping to help him/her. My vision is to uplift their morale and boost their confidence so that they start believing that it isn’t too difficult to live with a disability once they accept it, embrace it, and find ways to use their limitations to their advantage,” said Sahu, a TEDx and motivational speaker.

He added: “Often, persons with disabilities also have to deal with stress, depression and anxiety. We have volunteers who make sure that they get proper counseling. So far, we have managed to help nearly 2,000 people with counseling … some of them were battling suicidal tendencies. With assistance from other stakeholders, I have helped nearly 100 people in getting artificial limbs and assistive devices. Plus, they also must be financially independent. We apprise them of various existing government schemes and policies that aim to assist persons with disabilities.”

When the need arises, a soft-spoken Sahu turns into a fierce inclusion and disability rights activist. “In 2017, I bought an automatic modified car, but was denied license and registration because of my condition. I fought a legal battle and after 20 months, finally won in the Chhattisgarh High Court. This win paved the way for the reopening of lakhs of such cases in the state. Now, no one denies persons with disabilities driving rights,” said Sahu.

Chitrasen Sahu is a motivational speaker. The aim of his initiative ‘Mission Inclusion’ is to bring behavioral change in society when it comes to persons with disabilities

Scaling seven summits to achieve Mission Inclusion

“In May 2018, Chhattisgarh-based Rahul Gupta, who goes by the moniker “mountain man” held a press conference after a successful climb of Mount Everest. I attended the press meet and was fascinated. I approached him and asked him if a double amputee can climb mountains. Soon, we started training! We worked really hard for the next 1.5 years,” said Sahu.

After extensive training, Sahu was confident of scaling Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5,685 meters, it is the highest peak in the African continent. Gupta accompanied Sahu for the first expedition.

“On September 19, 2019, we started climbing. After four days, on September 23, at 11 am, I was at the peak holding the Indian flag. I have no words to describe the feeling. The last day was especially tough. The temperature had dipped to minus 10 degrees and chilly winds were blowing. We were 12 hours away from our destination. As it’s a volcanic mountain, it tends to get slippery. We kept going and, in the process, I sustained injuries. But we did not stop. When we reached the peak, I went numb with happiness. Five years back I was in the hospital, figuring out the way ahead and five years later, I was at the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro,” said Sahu.

After achieving this feat, there was no looking back. Sahu then aimed to scale the highest peaks in all seven continents. Next year, in 2020, his next stop was Mount Kosciuszko, which, at 2,228 meters, is mainland Australia’s tallest mountain. In 2021, his climb to the peak of Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Russia (5,642 meters), wasn’t an easy one. “I felt sick the moment we started climbing. The temperature was in the range of minus 15-25 degrees. I could see snow for miles, which was beautiful, but the winds were ruthless. It was so bad that I threw up a couple of times. There came a moment when I felt I won’t be able to complete the mission. That thought gave me the required push. I popped a pain killer and picked myself up, after which there was no looking back until I reached the peak.”

To know more about Chitrasen Sahu and his missions, watch this video

Next stop …  Mount Acconcagua

These days, Sahu is busy finishing travel formalities for his upcoming expedition to Mount Acconcagua, which, at 6,962 meters, is the highest mountain in the Americas. I could feel the rush in his voice when we spoke over the phone. He had a long to-do list. However, he was a bit anxious about the task that topped the list – securing the final leg of funding for the expedition for which he will leave from Raipur on January 2, 2022.

“For such expeditions, we have to carry two pairs of prosthetic legs; one that we use and one spare one. We have managed to get funding for one pair. We are still looking for sponsors who could fund the second pair. These expeditions are costly. All inclusive, this expedition is going to cost me approximately Rs 17 lakh. I need special equipment and clothing, which cost Rs 75,000. One pair of prosthetic legs costs Rs 6 lakh. The climbing fee is around Rs 3.37 lakh, and the expedition guide is going to charge Rs 2.25 lakh. Yes, raising funds for these expeditions has been a challenge. Mountaineering is something new, hence there is hesitation. I hope initiatives like Mission Inclusion would instill confidence in people and things will change,” said Sahu.

Chitrasen Sahu with his family

Befriending the mountains

“What I love the most about these expeditions is that mountains can’t distinguish. Scaling a mountain is a challenge for all. The low oxygen level, the snow sickness, the extreme weather conditions … everyone gets impacted by these factors. I just have a carry an additional weight of my artificial legs. That’s the only difference. All one needs is passion, dedication, and the hunger to reach the top,” said Sahu.

And what do mountaineers do when they reach a peak? How do they celebrate?

“I did pushups after reaching the peak of Mount Elbrus! Usually, the first thing I do is to remove my artificial legs, and then I just look around at the mountains and marvel at their beauty. Then the photo sessions begin! Along the way, we meet so many people from different countries. We all become friends and share our stories. That’s what I love about each journey,” said Sahu.

These expeditions are often very risky. In September 2021, almost a month after Sahu reached the peak of Mount Elbrus came the disappointing news that five mountain climbers lost their lives after they were caught in a blizzard. How do Sahu and his family and friends deal with this anxiety? “I have a simple funda. You will never know what’s in store for you. Just keep following life’s journey.”

If you wish to help Sahu raise funds for his upcoming expeditions, you can connect with him at halfhumanrobo@gmail.com or visit his website.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

After all, it’s kindness that binds us …

World Kindness Day is celebrated on November 13 every year to promote the importance of being kind to each other, to oneself, and the world. In the last two years, as the pandemic drama unfolded, we witnessed death, starvation, mass migrant movements, job losses, and a spike in mental health illnesses. However, there was something that kept our flickering hopes and spirits alive. It was acts of kindness that touched our hearts. The pandemic scarred us at multiple levels, and the tentacles spread by a tiny virus affected every single person in some way or the other, yet the many stories of kindness encouraged us to sail through and motivated many to help those in need. The Good Story Project has documented some of these stories.

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Lakshmi Ajay, a former journalist and a communications professional based in Bangalore, and her husband fell sick with Covid-19 as the second wave encompassed India in its deadly grip in April 2021. As they battled its manifold symptoms and sought help – the one thing that really made a difference came from strangers.

A relative stranger they were supposed to work with for a project volunteered and fed them home-cooked meals for the first two weeks of their illness. As they both battled fever, tiredness, aches, and pains – her food became the only uplifting thing that they looked forward to in their days.

Another stranger who responded to their enquiry for meals on Facebook sent them meal boxes with short handwritten notes stuck on them reminding them to eat healthy and get better while they recovered from the Covid-19 virus.

As Ajay rightly says: “Kindness is a panacea for the pandemic.” Click here to read Ajay’s story.

Photo by Thirdman on Pexels.com

Ayanti Guha, who lives in a gated community in Hyderabad, shared her story and recounted how the gated community rose to the challenges of Covid-19.

A group of ladies (about 60 and counting) got together and formed a group that would cater to the dietary needs of the Covid+ individuals and their families who would be under quarantine. The plan was simple – instead of running a communal kitchen, each one would make a bit extra of the meals that day in their own home and put that information on a WhatsApp group created expressly for that purpose. Each day this information would be shared with the families who were under quarantine or in need of this dabba service. They in turn would indicate what they would want for their meals, and it would be shared with them at the time specified. The only requirements would be that the food be fresh, in tune with the taste buds and food habits a particular family is used to and voila, a dynamic, healthy and fresh food service cropped up in no time at all.

Read Guha’s full story here.

Rishabh Lalani shared his story and revisited the numerous acts of generosity and kindness he received when his entire family, including his younger brother, mother, and father tested positive for Covid-19. For Lalani (second from right in the photograph accompanying the story), who works as an independent consultant to the not-for-profit sector, the pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on why people are inspired to offer unconditional support and help in a time of great distress.

In his own words:

“Throughout the 30-odd days of this ordeal, nutritious food could have been a challenge. I can’t cook much and my parents, who manage the kitchen jointly, were down with fever. My elderly grandmother needed to be fed as well. Through sheer coincidence, we figured out that one of the Jain temples nearby was sending food for families affected by Covid-19, free of cost. They sent lunch and dinner for our entire family for one whole month. No questions asked. In fact, when they were winding down their kitchen, they called us, checked-in on our situation and continued sending food for three more days so that we had enough time to figure out an alternative. Given the fragile nature of everyone’s health during Covid-19, we also needed breakfast. My mother’s best friend kept sending breakfast for a full two weeks so that all of us had enough energy to power through the day. Every morning at 8.30 am, I would get a call asking me to send someone to pick up the food packet. No questions asked, no thank-yous and no frills. Just pure love.”

You can read Lalani’s full story here.

““Positive”. I was not surprised. I had started showing symptoms. So, one evening, while returning from work, I bought basics like an oximeter, a few specific medicines and isolated myself. The initial few days were tough, but the recovery phase was tougher. I experienced “collective grief”. The images and heart-breaking stories flashing on my TV screen and mobile feed were having a devastating effect on me. However, the comforting presence of Covid warriors who took to social media to help people desperately looking for hospitals, beds, oxygen, plasma, ventilators, medicines, or Remdisivir injections was extremely reassuring. Though I was in isolation in a city I had moved into just two years back, and did not have a solid support system in place, I was confident that if I needed help, it would arrive through social media.”

Click here to read a first-person account by Swati Subhedar, co-founder, The Good Story Project.

As we turn one, we are broadening our horizons …

We have put together a brief gist of services, but don’t hesitate to just get in touch with us if you have any questions. Write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com.

Click here to see what our clients and readers have to say about our work.

Sometimes, all we need is someone who would listen with empathy …

There’s not a single person who hasn’t experienced loss (via death of a loved one) or wouldn’t do so in his/her lifetime. Who we lose and how … the situations differ and yet, it is rare to come across someone who has never grieved. Sometimes the loss is unexpected, or traumatic, or takes place in circumstances that change us forever.

We would like to thank each and every one of you who has shared or is in the process of sharing your deeply personal experiences with us.

Follow this link (https://bit.ly/3w6TZGF) to read all the stories on grief and loss.

Include us … that’s all people with spinal cord injuries are asking for

Because of the lack of support and access to the right tools and opportunities, majority of persons with disabilities don’t manage to find employment. Those who do, they face serious difficulties at workplaces as most offices continue to remain inaccessible or are not very inclusive when it comes to accommodating persons with disabilities.

Similarly, para-sportspersons have to struggle to find wheelchair-accessible stadiums, training institutes and coaches who are equipped to train persons with disabilities.

In some countries, including India, persons with disabilities have to make an attempt to fit in. To sensitize people, September is dedicated to spread awareness about spinal cord injuries. We spent the whole of September 2020 talking to those who are living with a spinal cord injury.

Each story is an inspiration — some found strength in sports, others in academics, while a lot of them are busy looking after their children and managing their families and at the same time being financially independent. Inclusion and acceptance … that’s all that they are asking for.

Follow this link (https://bit.ly/2Z73HwC) to read all the eight stories.

Pandemic, lockdowns, and hunger

World Food Day is observed on October 16 with an aim to eradicate hunger across the world. While, by God’s grace, we always had enough food on our plates, even during the pandemic, and most of us were in a position to help others with meals and ration during the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough since the beginning of the pandemic. Most of these families rely on daily wages or unsteady incomes and the lockdowns dealt a major blow to them. While men were out of work, it was the women who had to bear the brunt as they had to manage with less ration or the parents had to cut down on their intake, so that their children could eat enough. I spoke to five such families.   

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Swati Subhedar

Family 1: Rachana Singh and her family

Four-year-old Archit hesitated and looked at his mother when I offered him an apple which was in my bag. His mother, Rachana Singh, 27, hesitated too. I kept it on the charpoy on which I was sitting. Archit took it and ran into the room while his mother went back to chopping onions and tomatoes. “It’s been months we have bought any fruits,” said Singh and apologized to me for not offering me tea or biscuits. I told her she was very kind to allow me into her house and wait for my journalist friend who was roaming around the village taking quotes for a story that he was working on. It was October 2020, and we were in Jata Barauli village, which is in the Barabanki district, about 30 kms from Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow. Singh and I got talking.

There are eight members in Singh’s family – two senior citizens, four adults and two children; out of these only two are earning members. The men worked as master craftsmen before the 2020 lockdown. They did not get a regular income, but it was steady and enough. They could buy a regular supply of milk fruits and vegetables, and sometimes indulged by buying fish, chicken, and eggs. The children would occasionally get their treats of cream biscuits and chocolates. The men could not earn between March and June 2020 when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country. The family had to bank on their minimal savings to keep the kitchen running and later had to borrow from a relative when the savings got exhausted. The men stepped out in July 2020 to find work but in the next four months, until October, they could collectively earn only Rs 8,000. The Singh family still had to clear the dues of the local grocery store owner who let them buy groceries on credit during the lockdown.

“These days we mostly eat a curry made of onions and tomatoes and drink tea once a day, in the morning. The adults have cut down on their tea intake so that the two children could be given milk. It’s been months since we bought fruits, eggs, chicken, or fish. We buy two-three vegetables a week. That’s all we can afford presently,” said Singh.

What about their ration cards? In Uttar Pradesh, there are 3.5 crore ration cardholders who receive a monthly quota of 3 kg wheat and 2 kg of rice at subsidized rates of Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg respectively, through 80,000 ration shops.

“Only the earning members in the family have ration cards. Our names are not mentioned in those ration cards. We have tried so many times, but because of some technical glitch, our names got omitted and the authorities have not been able to fix the error. Besides, that ration is not enough as there are eight members in the house. We still have to buy surplus wheat and rice,” said Singh.

Rachana Singh in her kitchen

Family 2: Ritu Gautam and her family

“Our diet has reduced to half. If the situation does not improve, we will have to eat less than this,” said Ritu Gautam, 25, who dropped by along with her toddler while I was talking to Singh. Gautams and Singhs are neighbours. There are twelve members in her family — eight adults and four children. Her husband is also a daily wage earner who had to sit at home during the entire lockdown. “It will take us a couple of months to recover from the lockdown. The men get angry at us and tell us to spend less. What they don’t understand is that vegetables, oil, spices, salt, pulses, wheat, rice, and milk are essential food items. When we were financially stable, it never pinched them, but now that money is an issue, they think we are splurging. Besides, if children demand extra milk, chocolates, and biscuits, we can’t say no to them every time,” said Gautam.

During the lockdown, all the state governments had pitched in to help daily wage earners and migrant labourers. In April 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government announced that it will provide an additional 5 kg of ration (rice/wheat) free along with the 5 kg of food grains to be distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) – a government scheme — to each beneficiary in May and June 2020. As many as 14.5 million people in the state were expected to benefit from the scheme. However, both Singh and Gautam families slipped through the cracks did not receive this additional ration.

When I left the village that day, both the ladies were hopeful that the situation would improve soon so that they could eat two proper meals a day. Just a month later, in November, onion prices touched a record Rs 100/kg, and a few months later, in March 2021, came the second wave of coronavirus, more ferocious than the first one. In a short span of time, it claimed many lives and dealt a severe blow to the economy. Both the waves of the coronavirus led to severe job losses and those who took the maximum hit were the daily wage earners who suffered not just during the lockdown, but also after that.

Ritu Gautam with her son

Covid, job losses and hunger  

As per the latest report by Center for Monitoring India Economy (CMIE), during the first wave of Covid, India lost 6.3 million jobs. As per the same agency, when the devastating second wave halted the Indian economy, we lost an additional 13.3 million jobs. The impact of these job losses was also felt by the women who had to curtail their food budgets as a result of which most families were not eating enough.

In order to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, every year, World Food Day is celebrated across the globe on October 16. This day aims at tackling global hunger and striving to eradicate hunger across the world. In a research report published in June 2020, Oxfam had mentioned that COVID-19 was deepening the hunger crisis in the world’s hunger hotspots and creating new epicenters of hunger across the globe, and had predicted that by the end of 2020, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to COVID-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself. Unfortunately, India made to its list of countries and regions where the food crisis had worsened because of the pandemic. 

While we belong to the privileged class that always had enough food on our plates, pandemic, or no pandemic, and by God’s grace, most of us were in a position to help others during both the lockdowns, there are many families who have not eaten enough food since the beginning of the pandemic.  

Family 3: Rachana Devi and her family

It’s October 2021 and people are shelling out Rs 80 to buy one kg tomatoes. “I bought basics like onions, potatoes tomatoes and a few vegetables two days back and paid Rs 350. There are four members in the family, including two children aged 11 and 14. They are not kids anymore and corresponding to their ages, their diet has also increased. While we have not curtailed our food budget, myself and my husband have cut down on our diet so that our children could eat how much ever they want to,” said Rachana Devi who lives in Lucknow’s Gwari village.

Her husband does two jobs – he works on a contract basis with a local real estate contractor and his job is to arrange for labourers, he is also a priest who visits the homes of people and performs religious ceremonies. Both the jobs took a hit during the first and the second lockdowns. In fact, the family was still coming to terms with the losses incurred during the first lockdown, when the second wave struck. “During the second wave, people were talking about the third wave in October-November. Is that true? I don’t think we are in a position to deal with more financial losses as we are rebuilding for scratch,” said Singh.

Rachana Devi outside her one-room house

Covid leads to India’s fall in hunger index

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 2020 released on October 14, 2021, mentions that India has slipped to the 101st position among 116 countries in the GHI ranking from its 2020 ranking (94), to be placed behind Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The report also mentions that “people have been severely hit by covid and by pandemic related restrictions in India, the country with highest child wasting rate worldwide.” The government, however, was quick to react and claimed that the methodology used to calculate India’s ranking was unscientific. Both the lockdowns undoubtedly worsened the food crisis, and the below case study is the perfect example of this.

Rakesh Singh along with his mother and children. Read their story below

Family 4: “Manoj ki mata ji” (Manoj’s mother) and her family

“Sab Manoj ki mata ji hi bulate hai,” (everyone calls me Manoj’s mother) said this woman in her sixties, when I asked her name. Brothers Manoj and Rakesh Singh, along with their families, lived in Gwari village in Lucknow until October 2020. Eight family members – the two brothers, their wives, their mother and two children – lived in a one-room house. Both brothers worked as rickshaw pullers and earned daily wages. During the first lockdown, the family had to depend on food packets that were distributed daily in the locality as in the absence of daily wages, it was difficult to buy groceries, milk, and vegetables. In the wake of a severe financial crunch, Manoj and his wife moved to their village in Sandila, a town two hours from Lucknow, where they have a small farm.  

Rakesh started earning again in August 2020, however, a few months later, the second wave struck. This time, however, there were no food packets to bank on.  

“We went hungry on some days, but thankfully, after a few weeks, we could go to our village home. We have a small farm there and we sow potatoes in it. Every month, my brother and his wife send a sack full of potatoes. In case of a third covid wave, this time we will at least have potatoes. That was our learning from the last two lockdowns. It was tough to go hungry on some days,” said Rakesh.

Putli Devi does not have money to refill her cylinder. She cooks on the chulha. Read her story below

Family 5: Putli Devi and her family   

In September 2020, just after the first lockdown, the price of one LPG cylinder was hovering around Rs 632. Presently, in October 2021, one LPG cylinder is priced at Rs 922.50. The constantly rising prices of LPG cylinders has burnt a hole in the pockets of even middle-class families, poor families don’t even have the means to refill these cylinders. A few families I met at Mehmudpur village in Barabanki district in September 2021 have gone back to cooking on chulha (wood stove). When I met Putli Devi at her house, the first thing I noticed that the ceiling of the house was covered with black soot. I wondered what cooking on the stove must be doing to her lungs. “Do we have an option? Everything is so expensive. But one must eat basic meals. We can’t cut down on the meals, we have to buy vegetables, oil, spices, wheat, rice and pulses. That can’t be done away with, so we have to cut down on other expenses. Why would I get the cylinder refilled when it costs Rs 800-900?” she asked. Her husband is a farm labourer, who was out of work during both the lockdowns, and she has two children aged 6 and 8.  

“Is there going to be a third covid wave?” asked Putli Devi, while I was leaving her house.  

Doing our bit to spread mental health awareness …

In 2020, an actor’s death and what followed thereafter gave us an immediate impetus to do a series of interviews on
mental health. We wanted to share real, lived experiences of people as well as mental health professionals.

The ongoing series is a pool of resources. Come to these interviews as and how you like — to hear voices that speak to you, to find shared, common ground, out of curiosity, to explore your own self, or to broaden your horizons. There’s no judgement here or an attempt to preach.

Follow this link to read all the stories that we have published as part of our mental health series: https://bit.ly/3BEEQ0Q

If you want to share your mental health journey, write to us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com

The Good Story Project turns one!

It was in October 2020, after a long and lonely lockdown, when the two of us (Prerna Shah and Swati Subhedar) decided to give a voice and a home to stories big and small.

The idea led to the formation of The Good Story Project. In the course of one year, we published 50-plus stories, including a nine-part series on mental health and eight-part series on people living with spinal cord injuries. Our other stories include writings and perspectives on parenting, adoption, kindness during covid, inclusiveness, food, environment, and many more.

Thank you, for being a part of our The Good Story Project journey! As we complete one year, this is a small gratitude post.

Connect with us at contactgoodstories@gmail.com.

Follow us:
Facebook: @thegoodstoryproject
Twitter: @TheGoodStory_

Kiranjit’s father, a farmer, died by suicide. What she has done after that is incredible

On April 23, 2016, Kiranjit Kaur’s father Gurnam Singh, 48, a farmer living in Katra Kalan village in Mansa district in Punjab hanged himself by a tree as he was unable to pay the debt of Rs 8 lakh. Kaur was just 23. After struggling emotionally and financially for two years, she formed the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee to help the families of farmers and farm labourers cope with suicide, grim reality in Punjab and the rest of the country. Today, 6,000 people are a part of the outfit. The members include families of farmers and farm labourers in Punjab who could not cope with the pressure and chose to take the extreme step. The committee members not just provide moral and emotional support to widows and mothers; they also fight for the government compensation that the victim families are supposed to get and ensure that children from such families do not drop out of schools and colleges. As September is observed as suicide prevention awareness month, reading and sharing such stories is the need of the hour  

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Swati Subhedar

One telephonic conversation with Kiranjit Kaur, 25, is enough to understand how hectic her life is. During our 28-minute-long conversation, Kaur had to hang up twice as she was getting other important calls. Every time she would diligently message me to call her back and politely apologize. In between she also had a quick conversation with her mother to discuss dinner plans and instructed her brother to quickly collect clothes from the clothesline as it had started raining.  

The conversation started with small talk and exchanging pleasantries, but once she started talking about farmer suicides, the sufferings of widows and other family members, the lack of proper compensation, and the absence of suicide prevention and rehabilitation strategies, the passion in the voice of activist Kaur was unmissable. Kaur’s story is a perfect example of how sometimes adverse situations are capable of making us stronger.

“My father was my friend. He was my everything. There were no signs. So, that day (April 23, 2016) when a neighbour came and informed us that he had hung himself by a tree, it was beyond shocking. Yes, we were struggling at that point in time, but we could have never imagined that he would end his life,” said Kaur, the only time during the entire conversation when her voice choked with emotions. She added: “It was later that we came to know that he had to pay back a debt of Rs 8 lakh, including a loan taken from a government-owned bank and other lenders. Our real struggle began when we came to terms with the fact that he was no more, and we still had to pay the debt.”

Her father, Gurnam Singh, owned a three-acre family land and he had leased an eight-acre land for additional income. They would grow cotton and wheat. In 2015, a terrible pest attack damaged the entire cotton crop after which Singh’s debt kept mounting. He, like many farmers in the country, could not cope with the pressure and chose to put an end to his miseries by ending his life.

Kiranjit Kaur joins a group of widows making rotis at Singhu protest site. The 2020–2021 farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. Image credit: Salimah Shivji/CBC

“Our lives changed after his death. I had to drop out of college and my brother had to drop out of school (Kaur has one elder sister and a younger brother). My mother had no idea about any paperwork or bank work, so we had to figure that out. After a while, relatives stopped coming by as they feared they would have to bail us out financially. The lenders, however, never stopped knocking at our doors. I asked my brother to take up farming and I took up stitching work. I would work from morning until midnight and earned Rs 200-250 per day. I sank into depression. I would not talk to anyone. I would not step out much. It would have continued this way had I not met that elderly lady at the market that day,” said Kaur.

Kaur met an 80-year-old lady at the market who was buying sugar worth Rs 5. Kaur got curious and asked her how long it would last. “She told me that’s all she could afford. Her son, a farmer, had died by suicide after which her daughter-in-law abandoned the family and their two children, a daughter, three, and a son who was 1.5-years old. The 80-year-old grandmother was looking after the grandchildren. She took me to her house which was nearly collapsing. It made me realize that her condition was worse than mine and that’s when I decided to do something for such families,” said Kaur.

Soon Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee came into existence.

“The problem was far more serious and multifaceted”

The initial days were unstructured. Kaur would simply visit farmer families who had lost a loved one to suicide. She would listen to their problems for hours. That was crucial. Kaur noticed a typical pattern. The widows were not even aware that they could get a compensation, the children would drop out of schools and colleges, the families would not get any help from the government or relatives, and no one would listen to the victim families. The last problem was a serious one, so Kaur decided to give them a platform. All the victim families would gather at one place from time to time to share their problems and together they would find ways to deal with them.

“When I started paying door-to-door visits and listening to their issues, I realized the problem was far more serious and multi-faceted than what I had imagined it to be. We realized that the authorities were too busy and a bit indifferent to take up individual cases. So, we would go and meet the local MPs and MLAs in groups. We reversed the roles. We made sure that at such meetings widows and families got an opportunity to do the talking and the elected representative listened to their problems. We would then ask them for solutions. This boosted the confidence of victim families,” said Kaur.

Gradually, as more and more victim families started joining the outfit, they started visiting villages in districts of Punjab where farmer suicides were more rampant. They would tell farmer families that suicides were not a solution and offered to help victim families. There were two things that needed immediate attention. The first one was to ensure children from such families got adopted (their education sponsored) so that they didn’t have to drop out of schools and colleges. The committee reached out to the press, got many stories published that highlighted the plight of such families and children after which many influential families came forward to support the education of such children. Kaur herself is a beneficiary and is presently pursuing a correspondence course in journalism from Punjab University.  

The second agenda was to help widows and families get compensation from the government. In 2015, the Punjab government had raised compensation for families of debt-ridden farmers, who committed suicide, from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. But the families didn’t know how to go about claiming that compensation. The committee members help them with the paperwork.

Just after two years of its inception, the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee was a success story. Today it is a 6,000-member strong outfit. They work in seven districts of Punjab — Mansa, Sangrur, Bhatinda, Barnala, Patiyala, Moga and Faridkot — and the cotton belt of Malwa where farmer suicides are more rampant. They are also working closely with similar outfits in other states. So far, they have taken up compensation cases of 16,606 victim families in Punjab out of which nearly 6,000 families have got full compensation. Also, thanks to their direct intervention, nearly 300 children have been adopted and their education is being funded.

To change the system, join the system  

During the 2019 Punjab assembly elections, two widows from the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee decided to take the plunge. The members felt that in order to make their voices heard, it would be better to try and be a part of the system. Hearts of hearts they knew that they did not have a chance, but it was important to make an attempt. “All sorts of things were done to discourage us. We were not given our choice of election symbol. They tried to bribe our candidates and pressurized them to withdraw from the nomination process. We persisted and the media continued to highlight our stories. That was important. We wanted to show them that ordinary men and women can put up a fight too. The most touching part was the donation that we got from the victim families. Some gave Rs 5, some Rs 100, some Rs 500. That’s how we collected Rs 84,000 and that’s how much we spent on the election campaigning. The other parties must have spent in crores. We would move around in autos while campaigning and when we got media traction because of that, the other candidates started copying us. It was quite funny,” said Kaur.     

These days many members of the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee are camping at the state border or are in Delhi as part of the farmers protests. The 2020–2021 farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. A stalemate between the central government and the farmers has been seen for the past few months. Farmers, farmer unions and their representatives have demanded that the laws be repealed. Kaur was at the farmers protest too. “It is a good platform where we can put our points across,” said Kaur. Yet another important call cut short our conversation … thankfully at a point where the telephonic interview was nearing an end.  

(Disclaimer: The feature image is a collage of images that accompanied new reports featuring Kiranjit Kaur published in [clockwise] The Times of India, CBC and AlJazeera)

Read Mumbai-based Psychiatrist Shyam Mithiya’s interview where he talks about suicide prevention. You can find the other stories that we did as part of our series on mental health here. If you need to get in touch with mental professionals, dial these verified helpline numbers. NIMHANS: 080-46110007, AASRA: 9820466726, Talk to me: 9372909321/9820235880, iCALL: 9152987824