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!

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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 

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.

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

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.

….

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 …

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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

“It is tragic that people make elephants run like rats by throwing fireballs at them”

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. On this World Elephant Day, The Good Story Project co-founder Swati Subhedar interviews Neha Sinha to understand how deep-rooted the human-elephant conflict is and challenges of wildlife conservation.

In her book, which came out in February 2021, Sinha has documented stories of crisis involving iconic species found in India – the Indian leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra, the tiger butterflies, the rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach – and how development has been and will continue to be a silent killer of these iconic species.  

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The elephant is our national heritage animal, yet, today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. We have entered the homes of elephants in the name of development. How can we undo the damage already being done?

There is a lot of conflict between people and elephants in India. Other than the elephant conflict that happens in terms of people and elephants encountering each other and getting hurt, there is another kind of conflict. A lot of planning has been done in areas where elephants live and many mines, industries, factories, railway tracks and highways have come up in these areas which is detrimental to them. The elephants must walk to find food and water. But, with their habitat shrinking, they have to walk through and around the obstructions made in the name of development. This leads to disasters. Let me give you an example. In 2015, the elephants near Kaziranga in Assam encountered something novel – a wall meant for a township and a golf course. The wall was a part of the elephants’ walkway. For days, they made attempts to cross this barrier. Many photos emerged and in one of the pictures, a calf was seen trying to break the wall with his tiny head. The calf was later found dead next to the wall having suffered a haemorrhage.

In another instance, in 2019, villagers in Naxalbari in North Bengal tried to push off a herd of elephants from their paddy fields by throwing fireballs at them. Scared, the herd moved towards a railway line. The entire herd crossed the line, but a young calf could not as there was a steep incline. The calf scrambled down the slope and got hit by a train that came rushing towards it. His mother Ganga – an extremely loving and caring mother figure to the entire herd – died saving her child.

There have been many instances where elephants have sustained injuries or have died because of people chasing them with sticks or throwing firecrackers and fireballs at them to shoo them away. It’s tragic. The elephant is our national heritage animal, and we make them run like rats. They are very emotional animals. They have long memories, and they remember tragic incidents. They are also sharp enough to pass on this information to their young ones. The elephant chapter in the book is the longest one. It was difficult for me to write stories so full of tragedies.

Ganga and her calf. Both were killed by a train in 2019. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Last year, during the nationwide lockdown, there was outrage when an elephant died after consuming a cracker-filled pineapple. People could express their anger because the incident was reported. Many elephants die a silent death, and we don’t get to grieve for them. What should be done to keep the human-elephant conflict debate alive?

There was outrage because the elephant was also pregnant. We must understand that at any given point in time, a female elephant is either pregnant or is a caregiver. They have long pregnancies and because they are big animals, the young ones stay with their mothers for a few years. So, a female elephant dying is extremely tragic. It was terrible the way that pregnant elephant died after consuming the pineapple which was a bait bomb. People reacted the way they did was because everybody likes the idea of a mother and the mother being a caregiver.

People should understand that elephants are not trying to harm them. By entering their fields, all they are doing is trying to survive. They enter the fields because it’s easy nutrition for them and because their habitat has shrunk. There is no need to kill them or be so unkind to them. However, instead of merely saying that farmers should not harm them, we need to have a system in place. For any kind of conservation, we need political will as well as support from people. We need to take some hard decisions. To begin with, we cannot have more highways and coal mines in elephant areas.

Author and conservation biologist Neha Sinha and her book

Your book – Wild and Wilful – documents stories of conflicts involving some of the iconic species found in India and how they are on the verge of extinction. Tell us more about your book which you started writing during one of the gloomiest chapters of our lives – the pandemic-induced lockdown. How difficult was it to a write about wilderness while being confined to four walls of your home?

I did a lot of fieldwork for this book and started writing it in the end of 2019. I wanted to finish it by mid-2020 but the pandemic happened, and things became difficult. I wanted to visit many more places while writing this book, but that did not happen. I am a wildlife person and I need to be outside. It was tough writing this manuscript sitting at home!

This book is about the wild and I have been to deserts, mountains, rivers, woodlands, lakes and political capitals to bring you the stories of India’s wildest citizens, along with some remarkable people who share insights on, and their lives with, these animals. In the book I have written about the Indian Leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra and the spectacled cobra, tiger butterflies, rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach or the Mugger crocodile. The book loosely follows the structure of Earth, Sky, Water and Heart. It is divided further into the places where the animals are found. Under ‘Earth’, we have political capitals, deserts, woodlands and forest, under ‘Sky’, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under ‘Water’, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in.

A leopard seen in a tea garden in North Bengal. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Which chapter of your book is your favourite and why?

The elephant chapter is the closest to my heart as I felt very emotional while writing it. However, I also like the butterfly chapter. The butterflies are so whimsical and mysterious at the same time they are so beautiful and fragile. Their stories are so fascinating! For instance, the black and orange-coloured monarch butterflies, found in America, migrate not just over countries but continents! They start from Canada, avoiding the cold, and reach Mexico where they cover fir trees in millions. A single butterfly cannot complete this intercontinental journey. On the way southwards, the butterfly lays eggs, caterpillars emerge, and new butterflies are born. Hence, the butterflies that reach Mexico from Canada are third or fourth generation butterflies!

Which species mentioned in your book requires our immediate attention?

It would definitely be the great Indian bustard (GIB). There are about 100 remaining in India and that’s the entire global population. Over the years, their habitat has shrunk considerably. Earlier, they were found all over Central India, the Deccan Plateau, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Now they and found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, the solar and wind energy plants that have come up in the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are the latest threat to them. The plants are not a problem, the real problem are the wires that carry the power to energy grids. The GIBs never evolved to dodge these wires. They are the heaviest flying birds on earth, so they lack the speed and manoeuvrability that other birds have. The Supreme Court has directed the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan to lay high voltage power lines underground in the habitats of the bird to aid in its conservation efforts. We should have implemented this yesterday. We cannot afford to lose more GIBs. In 2019, a centre was set up in Rajasthan. Here, birds are hatched from eggs, chicks are raised, and ultimately, they all are released back into the wild. This is a good first step.

The Great Indian Bustard. Image credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India had 1.2 million snakebite deaths from 2000 to 2019. Hence, there is a tendency to attack and kill snakes. However, there is also a section that worships snakes. We have a similar love-hate relationship with elephants and monkeys. Does this make their conservation difficult? 

Yes, we do have a bipolar perspective on many animals. We kill cobras, but we also kill the rat snakes, that are not even poisonous. We worship elephants and keep them in temples, which is incorrect. They are wild animals, and it takes years of beating before they become the way they are seen in temples. All this is done in the name of culture. However, culture should be progressive and not stuck in a time capsule. Having said that, there are genuine problems and conservation cannot happen if we ignore these problems. There is a reason why people kill snakes. So instead of blaming them, there is a need to create awareness. Just like the covid vaccine is not an option, having an antidote (drug, chelating substance, or a chemical that neutralizes the effects of another drug or a poison) available in places which have snake bite is not an option. However, at many primary health centres, these antidotes are either expired or not available. These problems need to be solved and not pushed under the carpet.

A King cobra. Imamge credit: Jignasu Dolia

We love discussing politics, current affairs, cricket or our Olympic wins over chai, coffee and drinks. However, grave issues like climate change, environment-related issues, human-animal conflicts and wildlife conservation are topics that don’t come up for discussion frequently. What should be done to change this?

A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently mentions that India may see more heatwaves, landslides, droughts, rainfall, cyclones and agricultural and ecological droughts. There has been an increase in extreme events like excessive rainfall in the Himalayas and frequent cyclones. We are going to suffer financial loss and loss of livelihood because of these extreme events. Climate change is going to affect all of us, and we must take it seriously. Henceforth, our development plans should not disregard climate change. We shouldn’t be blasting the mountains in the Himalayas to make roads. We are aware. Acceptance is not a problem, but lack of action is. We want to continue to function like we have been functioning. We are already experiencing climate change, but the government is pretending as if it does not know. We are still planning dams in the Himalayas even though every year people are dying because of floods and landslides. We need a greater citizen movement. Societal pressure will lead to the government acting. But for that to happen, people need to start talking and discussing.   

A mugger crocodile. Image credit: Neha Sinha

How should we train our children so that they start taking issues like wildlife conservation and climate change seriously right from a young age?

This is a good time. There are a lot more eco clubs than there ever were before. People are using Apps to identify birds, plants and insects. People are reading a lot more and taking up conservation and wildlife as serious hobbies. As for the kids, they need to be taken outside. I can not stress this enough. It does not matter where — in the wilderness, deserts, forests, grasslands. Seeing is learning and nature is very interesting. Something is constantly happening. Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves. If we get them to do this, half the battle is won.  

“Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves”. Image credit: Swati Subhedar

A million-dollar question. Can development and wildlife conservation go hand in hand?

Development is important. However, there has to be social and environmental conscience as well. If you are opening an industry that pollutes the water table, then find options for people living there and the wildlife. Don’t make things worse than they already are. There is lot of scope of sustainable development in India so we must start walking the talk now. We wanted to clean the Ganga and the Yamuna, but we have not managed to achieve that. The Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans are in place for years. We must act now. We must keep the eco-system intact. The more we disturb it, the more difficult life on earth is going to be.

Neha Sinha is an award-winning wildlife conservationist. She has studied biodiversity conservation at Oxford University, after winning an INLAKS scholarship, and works with the Bombay Natural History Society at present. She is also a noted columnist and has taught environmental politics at Delhi University. Wild animals are her favourite, followed closely by books.

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

As per the United Nations, there are over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world, accounting for 6.2% of the global population. They are the holders of a vast diversity of unique cultures, traditions, languages, and knowledge systems. On this International Day of Indigenous Peoples, Dr Deepak Acharya, an Ethnobotanist, a PhD in Plant Sciences and a herbal enthusiast, who has been working with Adivasis for many years, takes us to the jungles of Dang in Gujarat, Patalkot in Madhya Pradesh, and Bastar in Chhattisgarh to introduce us to some of the ‘superfoods’ that the Adivasis living in these regions consume; some of which can and should make a way into our kitchens! A first-person account …     

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I have been visiting the Patalkot Valley in Madhya Pradesh for the past 20-25 years. The breathtaking and mystical valley, situated 78 kms from the Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, has been my second home for years now. The valley, spread over an area of nearly 80 square kilometers, is known for retaining its original culture and customs and is home to the Gonds and Bharia tribes, who, experts claim, have been living there for the past 500 years. 

The Patalkot Valley is the home of some of the rare medicinal plants and herbs and the Adivasis living in Patalkot make pulps and extracts of these herbs and plants to treat many illnesses and diseases, including measles, cholera, hypertension, diabetes, cough, snake bites, and many aches and pains.

Over the years, the Adivasis living in the 12-13 hamlets in Patalkot have not only become my family and friends, but they have also imparted their wealth of traditional knowledge onto me. These are their secret formulae that you will not find in any academic books. One gets to learn so much just by observing them and interacting with them.  

For instance, in the initial years, when I used to visit Patalkot, it was astonishing for me to see how even the elderly, the women and the children would walk for 15-20 kms daily without getting exhausted. I would feel ashamed as even a kilometer-long hike would make me breathless, and they all would stare at me as if I had committed some crime! Then, gradually, valuable tips shared by them helped me work on my stamina and strengthen my lung capacity. I started documenting the stories narrated by them and that’s how I discovered a superfood — their secret recipe to physical fitness!

Immunity-booster agithas. Image credit: Deepak Acharya

These Adivasis consume a root vegetable called agitha (known as Air Yam or Air Potato in English). Full of potassium and manganese, proteins, minerals and macro and micro- nutrients, these agithas give them the requisite strength to survive in difficult terrains by making their heart stronger. It also improves their digestive system.

Now, this is what is incredible. Adivasi women recommend agitha to treat vaginal dryness and hot flashes. It is also eaten extensively by women who have hit menopause. Initially, when I learned about agitha, I wanted to crosscheck the claims made by the Adivasis with the facts existing in scientific journals. It is well documented that agitha contains an element called Diosgenin which has diverse medicinal properties, including antioxidation and anti-inflammation. In fact, a review article mentioned that Adivasis living in Africa make pulp of agithas and use it to treat vaginal infections, irregular periods, and other inflammations. However, there is no study that elaborates on the connection between African Adivasis and Patalkot Adivasis! I have no idea whether, back in the day, the Adivasis from Africa visited Patalkot or the Adivasis from Patalkot went on an African safari! But it’s incredible how this knowledge gets passed on from one generation to the other and transcends geographical boundaries!

Agithas, that taste like boiled potatoes, are often eaten with salt and rotis. Image credit: Deepak Acharya

If you visit Patalkot or other such Adivasi-dominated regions, you will find these Air Yams carelessly hanging on to the fences of their homes. One crop fetches 10-12 kgs agithas in one season. This goes on year after year. Interestingly, one big root that produces these small agithas keeps growing beneath the surface of the ground. It’s taken out once in 2-3 years and weighs between 6 and 12 kgs. This is also boiled and consumed, however, once this root is uprooted, a new crop of agitha has to be planted.

Once, when I visited the Dang district in Gujarat, also an Adivasi-dominated region, I was ecstatic when I was served agitha with a roti made of rice flour! The agitha-roti combination was the best meal I had had in days!

Agithas taste like boiled potatoes. If these agithas find their ways into our kitchens and are given to women and children, imagine how fit and healthy the next generation is going to be! Unfortunately, we have been bitten by the consumerism bug, and most of us often end up picking up such ‘traditional superfoods’ from supermarkets and end up paying a bomb for these products in the name of healthy living. Instead of popping health capsules and multivitamins, we must create awareness among people so that they start consuming these traditional healthy superfoods; treasures that Adivasis and those living in remote corners of the country have preserved for years.   

I am glad my work has taken me to places and I was able to document some of these incredible stories.

The Madia crabs. Image credit: Ravish Raj Parmar

Crabs and mushrooms to beat monsoon illnesses

As soon as the monsoons arrive, the Adivasis living in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh flock to the nearby rivers, ponds and lakes to catch crabs. Seen in the picture above are the Madia crabs, which are said to be packed with healthy minerals. The Adivasis living in Bastar either make crab soup or eat a roasted delicacy. They believe the Madia variety of crabs boosts their immunity, keeps them warm during the brutal monsoon, and makes their bodies stronger. If you visit the markets in Bastar during the monsoons, you will find many Adivasis selling these crabs as they are also a source of their income. These crabs are also eaten in Dang, Gujarat and Patalkot, Madhya Pradesh.

Another common monsoon delicacy for the Adivasis are the mushrooms. Seen in the picture below are the Boda mushrooms that are predominantly found in the Bastar region. A fun fact. The Boda mushrooms are one of the most expensive vegetables sold in India! A kilo of Boda mushrooms easily fetch Rs 1,000-1,500 or more! And the reason for this is that they are packed with medicinal properties and essential nutrients and minerals. The Boda mushrooms are full of carbohydrates, fibers, zinc and, iron and are used to treat heart and blood pressure-related diseases. There are two varieties of Boda mushroom found in Bastar — Jaat Boda and Lakhri Boda, but it’s the Jaat Boda Mushroom that’s more famous and lucrative.

The Futu and Boda mushrooms. Image credit: Ravish Raj Parmar

Interestingly, these Boda mushrooms are also very elusive. The Adivasis have to do a lot of hard work to find these Mushrooms in the dense forests of Bastar. However, they also have an eye for these mushrooms and they spot them easily.   

Another variety of mushrooms that’s commonly consumed by Adivasis to keep monsoon illnesses at bay are the Futu mushrooms that are packed with antioxidants and proteins. Many varieties of Futu mushrooms grow in the jungles of Bastar. Not all are meant to be consumed, but the Adivasis can identify the varieties, like the Jaam Futu, that can be bought home and consumed.  

Mahua rotis and raspberries leaves to reduce labour pain

A couple of years back, I visited Shimla to attend a conference organized by the National Biodiversity Board. After the meeting sessions, I would go hiking into the jungles. I would walk for 25-30 kms daily and meet and interact with local people. One day I saw an old lady plucking raspberry leaves. I came to know while interacting with her that these leaves are packed with medicinal properties. Expectant mothers are given these leaves. Consumption of these leaves helps in reducing labour pain. These leaves are also used to treat other stomach aches and stomach-related illnesses. Those living in the interior villages in the Himalayas have been using these remedies. One cup full of raspberries contains 56% vitamin C and 45% manganese and micro-nutrients. Do consume raspberries when you can!

Raspberry leaves are crushed and given to expecting mothers. Image credit: Sangita Thakur

Another delicacy that’s not just a hit with the Adivasis living in the Central belt of the country but is also a lucrative source of income for them is mahua. They make and sell liquor made of mahua, but they also consume chapatis made of dried mahua flowers. Also, the mahua seeds are crushed to make an oil which in local parlance is called ‘gulli ka tel’ (gulli oil). It is used to treat many skin-related infections.  

There are many such food stories that Adivasis all over India are ready to share. We must start documenting them for our own good. Some of these superfoods stare at us from the shelves of supermarkets, and many of us end up buying these super-expensive products in the name of health, but in reality, some of these products are present around us. All we have to do is look around and try to make these Adivasi traditions a part of our lives.  

Do you know Adivasis use the pulp of raw papaya to remove unwanted hair? Those living down South use coffee powder to exfoliate their scalp? Many Adivasis use dried pomegranate to deal with dental plaque? Deepak Acharya documents such stories regularly on Facebook. To read such interesting stories, follow Deepak Acharya on Facebook.

Will you hire them?

Social inclusion and equality are two powerful words, but when it comes to employing persons with disabilities (PwDs), people with special needs, and members from the LGBTQ+ community, the numbers are not very impressive. In many parts of the world, June is dedicated to celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and their struggles against discrimination and social ostracization. June 18 is also celebrated as Autistic Pride Day. On this day, The Good Story Project takes you to a cafe in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. Here’s what is interesting. Presently, staff members at one of the branches include 15 people with hearing impairment, four transgenders, one person with Down Syndrome, one person who has a condition called dwarfism, and two trafficking survivors. Priyank Patel, founder, and managing partner of Nukkad Tea Café, talks to The Good Story Project co-founder Swati Subhedar about the challenges and the need to make these very talented people a part of the mainstream 

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June is celebrated as Pride Month. Please share the journey of people from the LGBTQ+ community working at your café.

Since its inception on June 18 in 2013, Nukkad has been working to promote social inclusion and equality. We started working with the members from the LGBTQ+ community in 2015. It was a one of its kind social experiment to recruit transgender people at various positions at the café. We went through our share of anxiety and skepticism and were not sure if the society would be as inclusive as we were trying to be. We met many people who were working with transgenders in Raipur. Through counselling sessions, we had to convince them about Nukkad working as an alternative medium of social security and financial independence and that our endeavour was to help them live with dignity and get social acceptance. We recruited a few members from the transgender community, trained them and taught them the basics of working in the hospitality sector. The experience and outcome were amazing. We were pleasantly surprised to see the overwhelming response from society as well.

Presently, we have two members from the transgender community working at one of our branches — Sagar (Asmita) is 29, a BBA graduate, who hails from the Charama block in Chhattisgarh, and Yugal (Illiana) who has cleared her 10 standard and hails from Mahasamund district in the state.

Sagar (Asmita) at the café

June 18 is celebrated as Autism Pride Day. Do you have any people with special needs working at the café? 

We do not have any employees with Autism, but we do have Sunil Vacchani working with us who has Down Syndrome. After working with the differently-abled community members for the past five years, we always wanted to explore the possibility of hiring a person with Down Syndrome. We met Sunil bhaiyya through a local NGO. As it was a first for us, we had to put in some effort. The team had to be sensitized and trained to understand the strengths of Sunil bhaiyya. We have given him a comfortable working shift of six hours and have assigned him as the ‘Happiness Ambassador’.  He is a devoted team member, is charming, and always smiling. He is 46 and supports his mother financially.  

Sunil bhaiyya at the Nukkad Café

How did Nukkad come into being? Why did you decide to hire people with special needs?

Nukkad is not just a tea café; we have been promoting social inclusion over a cup of chai since 2013. We are a social movement aiming to engage, employ and empower marginalized community members. I graduated in Electronics and Telecommunication in 2007 from Shankracharya College of Engineering in Chhattisgarh and got placed in an IT firm in Delhi. For the next four years, I worked with various other firms. In 2011, I was chosen for a fellowship and worked extensively with various organizations in Gujarat, Odisha, and Maharashtra for two years. I worked on rural livelihood, stayed within the community, and experienced how the village-based economy functions, the social structure of Indian villages, and the yawning gaps in our system.

I realized there is an immediate need for an interactive community space and came with the idea of a Chai Cafe that will employ and empower the marginalized segment of the society comprising the people with hearing impairment, people with learning disabilities, dwarfs, trafficking survivors and transgenders. We started in 2013, and today we have four outlets in two cities (Raipur and Bhilai). So far, we have employed and empowered over 40 talented people and we are India’s very first café employing 15 transgender community members over a period of time.

Priyank Patel, founder of the Nukkad café

What are the challenges of hiring persons with disabilities/those with special needs? 

Reaching out is a challenge as with every new community, our area of exposure and training patterns change. We need to keep connecting with various NGOs, local bodies, individuals, and families to identify people. We have to constantly evolve. For instance, we have to learn sign language while dealing with the hearing impaired community members, we need to learn body language and change our tone of communication while dealing with people with Down Syndrome and trafficking survivors. The cross-community synchronization is a challenge as we have to ensure that the multiple communities working in the same organization respect each other and adapt to each other’s needs.

Training them is a challenge as many of our team members who are from marginalized communities generally have low or no school education. They also have low self-esteem and were never generally exposed to the world of hospitality. Our efforts lie in developing an inclusive working environment that helps each of our team members to acquire and aspire for more and offer equal growth opportunities for all.

Sunil Vacchani (left) and Manish Khunte

How do your customers react? Are they as inclusive? 

Social inclusion is a broad term, and our consistent efforts are towards developing an inclusive work environment by sensitizing society as well. Nukkad has been widely acclaimed and appreciated for its initiatives and people have always shown efforts in learnings and supporting the inclusive vibes of the café. Very rarely do we receive any inconvenience complaints because of the specially-abled employees working at our café.

Those coming to the café and being courteous to the staff, may not end up hiring persons with disabilities or people with special needs as their staff members at home or in the office? What should be done to bridge this gap?

Sensitizing the sociality about social inclusion is as important as active participation and we try to do both. We have not just sensitized thousands of people about the challenges and potentials of hiring persons with disabilities, but we also have broken many prejudices and myths about the employability of PwDs. In a society where there are hundreds of unemployed youth, one is always competing to hire “normal” people. Secondly, it requires efforts and amending of processes to create an inclusive work environment. Unless there are incentives, I don’t think people would be very thrilled to hire PwDs.

I would recommend keeping the hiring process fair and open for all. One should hire a person who fits the job description. In order to make it a practice, the government must, among other things, incentivize employers who hire persons with disabilities/special needs and support young PwDs entrepreneurs so that they can create opportunities for persons with disabilities/special needs.

Do you think being employed and financially independent makes it easier for PwDs/those with special needs to find a place in the society/family and it boosts their self-esteem? 

A BIG yes. We have seen a transformation in personalities and acceptance in society for the PwDs/those with special needs. A financially independent and confident PwD works as a motivation and inspiration for the entire community and inspires a complete generation of PwDs to come forward and give their best to create a good life for their own self.

Would you like to narrate an incident that touched your heart and left you emotional? 

A transgender person working with us was into begging earlier. Working with us was her first “dignified” job. She put in all her efforts to adapt to the hospitality segment. She was skeptical and afraid and was not sure if customers would accept her, but she has managed so well. We have visitors who come from far just to listen to her stories and celebrate their birthdays with her. It touched my heart when a family said that they had always perceived a transgender person in a bad light and that they never knew that they can be so loving and caring.

Pic credit: Priyank Patel

I tested Covid positive recently, but this is not my story …

“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

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Swati Subhedar

The date was April 13. It was 2 pm. The humidity was unbearable, and I was too tired to stand any longer. I looked around. Nearly 150 people waiting in the “Covid area” of a government facility in Mahanagar area of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, were getting restless. There were young children and many senior citizens, but there were no chairs or benches. All were wearing masks, but I could see fear, anxiety, and helplessness in their eyes. There was not much scope for social distancing, but somebody could have switched on the fans at least.

At 2:20 pm, a man wearing a PPE kit emerged. Another one behind him was carrying Covid test paraphernalia. Yet another man was carrying a very sarkari-looking microphone and a speaker. They disappeared into a small room. The man wearing the PPE kit opened a small window through which he would take the RT-PCR test samples. The man carrying test kits sat with a register. The man holding the microphone started calling out names.

One by one, people went to the window, got their test done, and went away. No questions were entertained. A few senior citizens requested the team to take their samples first, but they were sternly told to wait for their turn and that the names would be called out in the order in which Aadhaar numbers were registered. A notice informed us that we could log on to a Covid-specific government website the next day to know our test results.

Under normal circumstances, I would have gone to a private clinic, but as Corona cases had started spiralling in Lucknow in April, private labs succumbed under pressure. After making at least 10 calls to different private labs, I tried contacting a few paramedics who usually come home and take the samples. All the numbers were switched off. I then contacted Nikhil Sahu, a journalist, who works as a health reporter with a reputed newspaper in Lucknow. He suggested I go to this government facility as it was the closest to me. I did not know the procedure. He asked me to send him my Aadhaar details and he managed the rest. All I had to do was to go there for the test. The others did not have it this easy. One is supposed to physically go to the facility in the morning, register his/her name and Aadhaar number and return at 2 PM for the test.   

I could not have taken an Ola or an Uber, so I took my two-wheeler, followed directions on Google Map, and managed to reach the facility. The deserted roads augmented my anxiety. My mind was constantly buzzing with many “what ifs”. I shall be eternally grateful to Sahu for helping me out though we have met just once. After recovering, when I called to thank him, we talked about how April wreaked havoc on Lucknow, as it did in other cities.

“There was a sudden rise in the number of Covid cases in April first week. By the second week, nearly 5,000 people were testing positive daily. All the labs were functioning for 18 hours, yet thousands were not able to get the tests done,” said Sahu over the phone. He added: “Many healthcare workers had also tested positive, so private labs were closed. As per the government directives, nearly 50,000 tests had to be done, but only 25,000 were happening on the ground.”

Indians would like to erase April 2021 from their memories. People showing severe symptoms could not get themselves tested; more serious patients were not getting beds, ventilators, or oxygen. As per media reports, many were dying at home and the number of deaths revealed by the government was not in sync with the scenes at crematoriums across the country.

I was, like many others, so numb with grief that I consumed news like a maniac. After all, when you are isolating alone, your mobile and television are your only sources of contact with the outside world. In addition, there was a lot of Covid anxiety to deal with. In the initial days, I would wake up in the middle of the night to check my oxygen level and there were times when I felt completely helpless when the thermometer displayed “102”. One night, I dreamt that some strangers were taking me to a hospital in a blue body bag.  

Close friends living in India and abroad called and messaged regularly. “What’s the oxygen level” replaced “good morning” messages. Ex-colleagues and building-mates would send me numbers of oxygen suppliers and tiffin services and bought me groceries and medicines. Panicked family members did all they could sitting thousands of kms away. A special thanks to my landlord Subhash Pandey, 55, a Supreme Court advocate, who bought milk for me every day, and my landlady, Indu Pandey, who would call me twice a day to “entertain” me.

While I can write a book on all these kind souls, this story is not about them. This story is about those known and unknown people on social media who kept me reassured. The situation was so bad that I would often wonder whom I would approach if my oxygen level started dipping or if I needed hospitalization, or how will I help my parents who were in another city if they needed help.

I would read all the “SOS” and “Urgent Help Needed” messages on Twitter and Facebook just to understand how others were reaching out to those who needed help. When the system started crumbling, it was these ordinary men and women who put social media to good used and went out of their way to help others. As Sahu puts it very aptly: “Social media acted like one big pharmacy and a hospital. Oxygen, injections, medicines, beds, plasma, ambulances … everything was available here. People were turning to social media for help as they were getting help on these platforms.”

A Linkedin post by Kavita Pathak, Director, Jaipuria Institute of Management, posted in April is the perfect example of how strangers turned into angels. Here is the edited version of what she wrote:

“In the middle of the night, my 85-year-old father’s oxygen level started fluctuating. One oxygen cylinder reached my doorstep at 3 AM, dropped by someone whom I did not know. He was just a phone number. I got in touch with one Puja ji. One Abhishek ji who lives in Indira Nagar in Lucknow started from his place at 2:15 AM, went to Gomti Nagar where Puja ji lived, collected the oxygen cylinder and reached my place in Mahanagar area at 3 AM. Not a penny exchanged. He even called the next day to ask about my father.”

It was stories like these that kept Covid patients, and their families, hopeful amid so much gloom. People were not only tagging others who were in a position to help, they were going out of their way by personally calling oxygen suppliers and hospitals and sharing only verified numbers.

“It was a critical time and people were doing what they could do to help those who were scrambling to get beds and oxygen. We could not have miraculously built more hospitals or produced surplus oxygen, but people realized that they could help others by at least telling them where hospitals and oxygen were available,” said Mithilesh Dhar Dubey, a journalist based in Lucknow. He has been very active on social media right from the time when the second covid wave hit Uttar Pradesh and has managed to help nearly 50 people with beds, oxygen and Remdisivir injections.  

He shared a touching story with us.

“On April 21, at 10 pm, I got a call from a lady from Prayagraj. I am not sure where did she get my number from. She was crying and said her husband was Covid positive and unwell. She had managed to get him to the city 25 kms from where she was in an auto but was not getting any bed. She was seven months pregnant. I asked her to wait. Then through my sources and online resources, I found out that one hospital in Prayagraj had seven beds with oxygen cylinders. I called the hospital and confirmed. I then asked the lady to go there. There she was asked for a letter from the Chief Medical Officer, which she did not have. So, I called the District Magistrate of Prayagraj. Her husband finally got a bed. His oxygen level improved from 70 to 95. She called me the next day, thanked me and said if she has a boy, she will name him Mithilesh.”

As the number of Covid cases started spiralling across India, so did the number of posts on social media. People did not waste crucial time blaming the system or cribbing about the failed healthcare facilities. They started tagging random people who they thought were in a position to help Covid patients and their families. And these tags were not city or state-specific. Such was the power of social media that a person sitting in Mumbai could, indirectly, or through other people, help someone in need in Delhi, Jaipur or Ahmedabad.

“This is how it worked. When help was sought by someone on social media, people would randomly tag other people. Sensing the urgency, these people would do all in their capacity to help the person on their own or they would rope in more people. The entire chain would work tirelessly until the person in need got help. What was most touching was that not everyone knew everyone in this chain,” said Gaurav Girija Shukla, who lives in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, and owns a PR and brand management firm. Shukla, and others like him have, so far, through a WhatsApp group, helped more than 250 covid patients recuperating at home by providing them timely help in the form of consultation, medication or hospitalization with the help of a panel of doctors, few volunteers and 2-3 helpline executives.

Talking about how the power of social media transcended state boundaries, Shukla narrated an incident.

“One day, at around 8 pm, I got a call from a friend of mine living in Raipur. His friend had landed in Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) earlier that day from Bangalore where his brother had just moved in only to realize that his brother and his entire family were Covid positive. The brother needed hospitalization as his oxygen level was constantly dipping, but the friend did not know Jabalpur. Without wasting any moment, a bunch of us in Raipur jumped in to help. We contacted a few journalists, influencers, politicians and NGOs in Jabalpur. By 11 pm, his brother got a bed in a good hospital.”   

However, the journey was emotionally and logistically draining for these social media worriers. Twitter accounts of those who were incessantly helping people by tagging others were suspended temporarily. Some Facebook users who were trying to help received a warning. In addition, some state governments came down heavily on people who were seeking help for medical assistance of oxygen supplies for their families or friends for spreading misinformation. On April 28, a man was charged in Uttar Pradesh over oxygen SOS on Twitter for his dying grandfather.

However, on April 30, the Supreme Court warned state governments against doing so. In a strongly-worded statement, the Apex court said: “Let a strong message go across to all states that we will consider it a contempt of this court if any citizen is harassed for making a plea on social media/media for making an appeal for oxygen/beds etc. Clampdown on information contrary to basic precepts. No state can clampdown on information.”

These restrictions have not stopped people from helping each other. However, fatigue has set in. People feel anxious and frustrated when they are not able to help anyone.

Last year, Daya Sagar, a journalist based in Lucknow, helped migrant labourers who were walking back home by providing them with cooked food, milk and water, and daily wagers with dry ration. “As a journalist, I couldn’t have just covered these stories. I had to help those people. By doing so I got in touch with a lot of people, communities, and groups on social media. So, this year, when people needed medical help, these networks enabled me to immediately start helping people. It is hugely satisfying when I manage to help people, but some days are frustrating,” he said.

In May first week, he wrote a Facebook post saying: “Now I don’t feel like giving false promises to people. I have exhausted most of my ground resources, but people are still not getting beds or ventilators. At times, even after dialling 10 numbers, we do not get a positive response from doctors. Even plasma donors are difficult to find. In cities like Delhi or Mumbai people are aware, so they help. But in smaller towns, people are still not thinking beyond themselves. It has become exhausting. Now, if I am not able to help someone, by evening I start feeling guilty.”

Sahu’s quote sums up this feeling. “I tried to help as many people as I could. But there were times when people died because I could not help them. I feel especially terrible when I am not able to help young patients. On such days, I sit in my room and cry,” he said.

For daily wage earners and migrant labourers, it’s a sense of Déjà vu

For more than a year, our lives have revolved around Covid. A pandemic fatigue had set in. But just when people were hoping to move on, the situation exploded in our faces. The second Covid wave has hit India hard. The country is reporting on average three lakh fresh Covid infections daily and rumours of lockdown are making people anxious and restless. Yet again, migrant workers and daily wage earners are crowding local train and bus stations to return home because bitter memories of the 2020 lockdown are still fresh in their minds. We bring to you five heart-breaking stories of those who had faced harrowing experiences during the lockdown last year. They shudder to think what is in store for them and others this year

…..

Swati Subhedar

“Please take some. It’s from a good shop,” said Anil Shastri, 38, as he offered me some sweets. This was just before Diwali in October 2020. Shastri and his family, comprising wife Rekha Devi (32) and two children Priya (13) and Mayank (7), lived in a one-room home in a lane not far from where I live in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. It is tucked between rows of bungalows on either side and most of the occupants are daily wage earners. As Shastri and I spoke, his wife sat on the floor to make tea and his children settled in another corner of the house to do their homework.

“It’s a sad Diwali. I have not had a regular income since the lockdown was announced in March (2020). I am not touching my savings because it’s meant for school fees and medical emergencies, but I withdrew some cash to buy new clothes for my children and this box of sweets,” he said. Shastri worked as a priest and before the lockdown, people would call him home for religious functions. He would get paid in cash and sometimes in kind. The earning was decent but cyclic. He earned well during the festivals, but otherwise, it was a daily struggle.

However, on March 24, 2020, the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced, Shastri knew it was bad news. “The government should have given people like us some time, at least a few hours, to make alternate arrangements. This is a one-room set. We would have died because of heat and suffocation. It would have been impossible for me to pay the monthly rent of Rs 2,500 per month and the electricity bill of Rs 1,500 without any income. Managing ration would have been another headache. So, the moment I heard the news at 8 pm, I fled from Lucknow.”

Shastri and his family left for Hardoi – a district 100 km away from Lucknow – on their motorcycle, with minimum belongings. “My parents and brother’s family live in a village near Hardoi. They have a small farming land. I knew I was not going to get any work so I decided to move back home for a few months so that I could at least feed my family. I drove non-stop for hours and reached at 2 am. There were police on the highway, and I even had to pay a small bribe to cross a toll naka.” 

Shastri and his family in their one-room set in Gomti Nagar, Lucknow

Shastri’s landlord was kind enough to allow him to pay the rent in trenches during the lockdown. The family returned in October 2020, just before Diwali. When I met Shastri then, he was looking at options, because in the absence of a regular income, it was becoming difficult for him to live in a city like Lucknow.

When the second wave hit India in April 2021, and rumours of a lockdown began surfacing, I went to meet Shastri to ask if I could help him in any way. The family was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. The neighbours told me they have moved back to their village as Shastri was not getting any work. In fact, most of the homes in the lane were locked. While some have made the big shift back to their villages, some have left temporarily fearing lockdown.

Singh’s family, comprising his parents, wife, and a year-old son, lives in Samastipur. His wife was expecting last year and gave birth to a baby boy in March 2020. Because of the lockdown, Singh could not leave Lucknow and got to see his new-born only in June.

A few blocks away, Ram Prasad Singh, 33, a vegetable vendor from Samastipur in Bihar, who has made Lucknow a home for the past few years, sat dejected next to his cart. He asked me if a lockdown was going to be announced and whether he should go back home. When asked where he was last year, Singh said: “I was stuck in a room with five others for months. There was just one fan, no income, and no fixed ration. This time, I don’t want to make the same mistake. I will never forget that long journey back home — nearly 50 of us were stuffed in a bus that had a capacity of 35. I will also always remember the pangs of hunger that we would experience during the lockdown.

“We are poor but eating two square meals a day was never a problem. It was humiliating to ask for food packets. It was even more humiliating to eat that sub-standard food. I am not willing to go through similar humiliation this year,” Singh said.

Migrant labourers and daily wage earners crowding at Anand Vihar bus station in Delhi after chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced a lockdown to tackle with the rising Corona cases. Image source: Twitter

Not willing to take a chance …

As India is reporting record-breaking fresh Covid cases daily during the second wave that has hit the country in April 2021, there is panic all around. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in an address to the nation on April 21, said that a lockdown should be seen as a last resort, daily wage earners and migrant labourers are not willing to take a chance … not this time. The bus and train stations across major cities in India are witnessing similar scenes like last year – panic-stricken people, carrying minimal belongings, wanting to catch the first bus or train to go back home.

In 2020, a few days after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, National Highways across the country witnessed a mass movement of people. Migrants who were stranded in different cities set off for home, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres away desperate to be with their families in the prolonged lockdown that left them with no money, no jobs, and no roof over their heads. Many set off on the long walk wearing basic shoes with paper-thin soles or ordinary flip flops, their belongings packed into backpacks or bundles. While some reached home, some could not make it. Fatigue killed them. And then there were people like Shankar Yadav who were stuck in an alien state.

Shankat Yadav and 50 others were stuck at Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh last year for over a month

“We had to eat insect-laden, substandard food for a month”

“It was terrible. Even the most basic facilities like water and electricity were missing. There were many women and children with us. As it was close to a forest area, there were mosquitoes. We feared dying of Malaria or Jaundice and not Corona. The worst was the food. We were not even getting three meals a day. There were days when we had to wait until late afternoon to eat the first morsel of the day. At times they would send food cooked in the morning, which would go bad by the time it reached us in the noon because of the heat. On many occasions, there were insects in daal (pulses) and rice that was served to us,” said Yadav while talking about the month-long ordeal at Rajnandgaon.

Yadav, 24, who is originally from the Giridih district in Jharkhand, moved to Hyderabad in 2018. He runs a juice shop in Gachibowli corporate park in the city. Last year, when the rumours of a complete lockdown surfaced, Yadav and 50 others from various districts in Jharkhand, who lived together in an urban slum in Hyderabad, decided to return to Jharkhand. Unfortunately, the lockdown was announced when they reached Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh in a bus, and they all got stuck. They were taken to a government school, which was their home for the next 1.5 months.

He adds: “We are not rich, but we still manage to give decent food to our women and children. Yes, we were unwanted guests in Chhattisgarh then, but the least that the administration could have done was to treat us like human beings.”

Yadav and others reached their homes in Jharkhand after 1.5 months when the state government started plying buses for stuck migrant labourers. “We returned to Hyderabad in October. We had to. There was no income, but the owner was still asking for the stall rent. We had to dig into our savings to pay the rent. By the time, I went back to Hyderabad, I was penniless. I had to start afresh.”

Yadav is now panicking as the Corona cases are going up and there are again rumours of a complete lockdown. “This time I am confused. I am not sure if I should stay back here because if there is going to be a lockdown, I will have no income, but I will still have to pay the stall and home rent.

“I don’t want to start for home as I fear getting stuck like last time. You are more informed. I request you to tell me honestly if there is going to be a lockdown,” says Yadav.

Migrant labourers outside a bus station in Chhattisgarh. Image: Twitter

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now”

Like Yadav, Champa Marandi, 19, from Adivasi-dominated Surguja district in Chhattisgarh too has some terrible memories of the lockdown. Around 25 young boys and girls from different villages in Surguja had moved to Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh in October 2019 to work in a construction company as labourers. After the lockdown was announced, the work came to a standstill. Their contractor told them that the company was not in a position to pay them for long. Marandi and others didn’t have an option but to walk back home.

The distance between Srikakulam district and Sarguja is around 770 km. “Our parents were getting worried. So, we decided to start walking. We had one last conversation with our parents before we set off as we could not charge our mobiles after that. All we had were our backpacks and water bottles. While drinking water was not a problem as the villagers living in small hamlets along the highway were helpful, food was a major problem. “I think we got to eat one proper meal after two-three days. Some volunteers were distributing food packets along the highway, so sometimes we got to eat proper meals, but otherwise we survived on water and biscuit packets that were distributed by the CRPF jawans.

“I feel like throwing up when someone offers me biscuits now. We would keep walking all day long and exhausted, we would sleep on the National Highway,” Marandi said over the phone in her extremely frail voice.

Her village falls in a forest area, so connectivity is a problem. But Marandi was curious to know about the rising corona cases in the country and the lockdown rumours. When asked why she did not go back to Srikakulum after the lockdown, Marandi says: “The contractor never cleared our dues. We kept calling him. Ultimately, he switched his phone off. Our parents are upset. Also, they are worried. They will never send us back now. That was our only chance to go out and earn. The lockdown ruined it.”

Dev Yadav and Kedar Yadav (in black shirt)

“This was our last selfie together”

“I was close to my brother. But when we were getting his body back in an ambulance, the stench was so unbearable that, for the first time, I was not comfortable sharing space with him. We requested the authorities so many times to give us some ice, or at least a coffin box, but they just refused,” says Dev Yadav, 19, a resident of Gaya in Bihar, while talking about his brother, late Kedar Yadav, 32.

Yadav was among those unfortunate migrant labourers who passed away during the lockdown. They left for home but could not make it. On September 13, 2020, Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar informed the Parliament that his ministry does not how many migrant workers may have died during the 68-day lockdown. Incidentally, over 1.04 crore migrants returned to their respective home states.

During the lockdown, thejeshgn.com, a website run by a group of techies and scholars, started documenting deaths that occurred during the lockdown, but not due to Coronavirus. The data was published in July 2020. The deaths were categorized as exhaustion (walking, standing in lines), starvation and financial distress, police brutality or state violence, lack of medical care or attention, death by crimes associated with lockdown, accidents due to walking or during migration, suicides, suicides due to fear of infection, loneliness, and lack of freedom of movement, deaths in Shramik trains and deaths in quarantine centers. As per the data, during the lockdown, 216 people died due to starvation and financial distress, 209 people died in road and train accidents, 133 died due to suicide, and 96 people died while travelling in Shramik trains. As per the website, a total of 971 people died due to non-Covid reasons.

Yadav died in an unfortunate road accident. A newly married Yadav had moved to Rajasthan to work as a construction labourer so that he could support his wife, parents, and younger siblings.

On May 15, 2020, in a desperate attempt to get back home, Yadav, along with other migrant labourers from Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, who were also returning home, hitched a ride on a truck that was transporting sacks of cement. At 3 am on May 16, the truck collided with another stationary truck that was stationed outside a dhaba at a place called Mihauli in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh. Incidentally, the stationed truck had around 20 migrant labourers from Delhi. The collision was so powerful that both the vehicles overturned. At least 24 migrant workers died and 37 were seriously injured in the accident. Yadav was one of them.

“My brother had called us when he left from Rajasthan. He said he was coming in a bus and would be home by morning. At 4 am on May 16, I tried calling him, but could not reach him. I kept trying for two hours. At 6 am, we received a call from a policeman informing us about the accident and that my brother was seriously injured. We immediately hired a cab and left for Auraiya. But by 10 am, his name had started showing among those who had died,” says Yadav’s younger brother Dev.    

He adds: “We reached there at 3 pm. All the bodies were covered with cement, so it took us a while to identify him. We were provided with an ambulance to take his body back home, but the body was uncovered. We requested them to give us some ice or a coffin box as it was peak summer, but the authorities refused. I kept requesting the driver to switch the AC on, but he did not pay any heed. The stench was making us sick. Once we reached Gaya, we were asked to go to a police station to report a case of accidental death. Upon reaching there, we were told that our residence falls in some other police jurisdiction, so we were sent there. Then we were asked to go to a hospital to get his covid test done. Finally, at 10 pm, we reached the crematorium.”

Yadav’s wife has moved back to her parents’ place and the family is still coming to terms with the tragic loss. “We had clicked a selfie before he left. Little did we know that it was our last selfie together. I am still so numb with grief.” I know the situation is bad. People are again talking about a lockdown. I just hope no one has to go through what we went through last year,” said Dev.   

“In December 2020, my whole world came crashing down around me when I lost my ma to Covid”

In November 2020, Pooja Ganju Adlakha started writing this 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

…..

I wrote this piece for my father in November 2020. The story was meant to be about how I was able to cope with the grief of losing him in October 2016, and how my mother was my biggest source of strength. But soon after I submitted the story for publishing, my whole world came crashing down around me.

I lost my mother, my precious, precious ma, to Covid-19 on December 26, 2020. It seemed unfair. I always thought my ma would be by my side forever. I don’t think I have the strength to deal with her sudden loss, that too in a pandemic year. A dagger is stuck in my heart forever.

They say an empty nest is when kids move out of parents’ home, but, with both my parents gone, I am experiencing a different kind of an empty nest. They will never be there to hold my hand and help me sail through. No one would shower me with unconditional love. I will miss the aroma of food cooked by my ma, and my pa’s infectious energy whenever I will enter my maternal home, that empty nest, from now on.

With both her parents gone, Pooja is experiencing a different kind of an empty nest syndrome

However difficult it may be for me to talk about this, I must still try for the sake of my ma who filled our lives with love and affection after pa left us. Now, looking back, I feel how difficult it must have been for her to live without him and not showing the slightest of pain to us, her three daughters. THAT for me is displaying pure strength for the sake of family.

This loss also made me realise we are never alone in grief. As painful as it is for me, it is equally heartbreaking for my sisters and much more for our children who doted on their nani. For now, we are numb. We are still coming to terms with the fact that we will not be able to hear her voice and see her every day. We are angry at God for taking her away from us. But we have to be sane for the sake of our children, like my ma was for our sake. I love you ma and you will always be alive inside me. Here goes my original story, the one I wrote for pa, before ma left me to be with him in heaven … 

I was expecting my second child when my father Major Virendra Ganju, a veteran in the Armed Forces, passed away. He had been battling Motor Neuron Disease and was completely bed-ridden in his last days. I particularly remember this moment when he asked me with hand gestures what I wanted … a girl or a boy. I said a girl. He called me closer and touched my belly and blessed me. And there I was, the very next month, on his tervi, giving birth to my daughter. There will always be this sadness that he was not able to see or hold my little girl, but I am glad that he had blessed her. To me, she is a piece of my papa.

Major Virendra Ganju battled Motor Neuron Disease for 23 long years

Papa … it’s a small little word but it signifies a valley of emotions, love, memories, and pride. My father has been, to this date, my hero, and I, being the youngest of his three daughters, was his most pampered one.

I have been finding ways to deal with the loss of my father for the past four years. As per the definition of grief, it is a response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone who has died. Well, in reality, grief is much more than a mere collection of words defining the immensely strong feeling of loss one feels when a beloved is gone forever.

People are often asked how they feel about the loss, how do they manage it, deal with it, or make themselves accustomed to the great void that gets created. Well, I am not sure if they actually ever get used to the void. They try to keep the memories alive to occasionally relive the moments that were once spent together, irrespective of the pain they bring along.

I can tell from my personal experience that things do get better with time, but, at times, you feel like rewinding the years all over again. The acceptance part was easier for me, as he had been defying Motor Neuron Disease (MND), a very complicated disease, for 23 long years. It was a miracle considering the doctors had given him just three years to live after he was diagnosed with MND. So, the additional years were a blessing, and it was in these years that we saw the real hero, the real soldier who had this immense will to live a happy life and none could fathom what he must have been going through.

Pooja with her parents

Though he was not active in the last few years, it was his real absence that hit us the most … all the talks that did not happen, the war stories I did not hear from him, the time that we could’ve spent together … they are just flashes, in retrospect. At times, I feel guilty, that I lived so close by, yet I could not spend every weekend with him. A valuable lesson learnt. We will always be busy, but let’s not forget to spend quality time with our loved ones. Do not wait for the right moment. It may never come.

I was in awe of my mother for being his pillar of strength. We did all that we could for him and have no regret that we could not find the right treatment for him. I personally did extensive research on MND, spoke on forums to realise how little progress has been made and, in India, how patients suffering from MND and their families had limited access to resources and support systems.

The last year that I had with him was the year when he was the most vulnerable. He was bedridden, could not speak, he was being fed through pipes, there were catheters and oximeters, and yet, whenever we would ask him about his health, he would always show a thumbs up. THAT was my papa.

So, to not see him running around fixing everything for us or throwing parties or to not hear him sing was a big blow and a realisation that a glorious chapter was about to end. He always called me his mighty son, and when it was time to lit the pyre, I was not allowed to see him as I was expecting my daughter. I did feel a bit of a rage, but my sisters lit it for the three of us, and I could not have been prouder.

Pooja’s mother with her kids

I feel it is these memories that make us strong and keep us going, and yet, there are moments. Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I am writing this. I want to be as strong as he was. I am getting there. My mother and sisters were my pillars of strength. The year after he passed away, my mother stayed with me. I felt relieved that I could not spend time with my parents while my father was alive, but I got to spend time with my mother.

Handling the loss, being strong for the sake of your other parent, is also a way of dealing with grief. There are some other coping mechanisms that come in handy. I try to keep him alive by doing things he loved the most … like singing, watching movies, throwing parties for kids, donating and distributing things to people randomly, impulsively. He was indeed a happy-go-lucky man, who would not worry about the future, something I still need to learn.

I make sure to celebrate his birthday, my parents’ marriage anniversary, and his death anniversary. We play music, order their favourite dishes, donate food to the needy and that, in a way, has really helped me have happy memories of him. I know I am a bit like him so, sometimes, I justify it by doing these things. And, at times, I randomly talk to him. That keeps us connected.

Pooja Ganju Adlakha’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Sunil Kumar’s story here. He lost his wife just four days before the 2020 lockdown and eight months after they got married.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the author, in this case, it being Pooja Ganju Adlakha and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“I had to deal with the grief of losing my wife during the 2020 lockdown. I felt very lonely”

Sunil Kumar, a social worker and an artist based in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, lost his wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, just a day before the March 22, 2020 Junta Curfew – a day-long lockdown that was announced ahead of the complete lockdown last year to stop the spread of coronavirus. While the whole country was anxious, Kumar was fighting a different battle at a hospital in Muzaffarpur caring for his wife, a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions. This inspirational story is about how he dealt with the grief of losing her

…..

The date was March 21. The country was gearing up for the Junta Curfew — a day-long nationwide lockdown that was scheduled for the next day to stop the spread of coronavirus in the country. Not much was known about the pandemic then and people were very anxious. However, I was more anxious than the rest of the country because I was at the Sri Krishna Medical College in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, looking after my wife Sarla Siriwas, 33, who was admitted there. She was suffering from Meningitis and Kidney stones and had been battling for her life at the hospital for 50 days. For a week after she was admitted on January 31, 2020 after she complained of high fever and headache, her condition was improving, but after that she was gradually slipping away with every passing day.

The doctors were never optimistic, but I was hopeful. I had waited for Sarla for years before she had agreed to marry me on July 10, 2019. Now, nearly eight months later, I was at the hospital holding her hand and full of hope as she was swinging between the states of semi-conscious and unconsciousness. I was mentally prepared that day. The pain was unbearable for her. Finally, at 9 pm, my wife left me forever. 

Sarla used puppeteering as a medium to spread awareness. Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day

The next day was her funeral and also the Junta Curfew. The situation was tricky. Apart from the immediate family members, very few people who knew my wife well and had worked with her managed to come down to Sikandarpur (in Bihar) for the funeral. My heart sank when I touched Sarla for the last time. Sarla was a social worker, a puppeteer and an artist, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country and working for the betterment of underprivileged Adivasi women and children. Many friends and acquaintances spread across the country who knew Sarla well wanted to attend her funeral, but couldn’t because of the situation. But over the next few days, I was inundated with messages on social media and WhatsApp, which helped me come to terms with the fact that she was no more.

It didn’t help that the country went into a complete lockdown on March 25, just four days after her death. There was a void inside me, my house … and there was a strange stillness outside. However, the initial few days gave me the time to think about how to deal with the grief of losing her. And I thought the best way to do that would be to celebrate her life and work.

Sarla was a social worker and a puppeteer, who had spent most of her life travelling across and living in some of the Adivasi-dominated and Naxal-infested regions in the country

While she was alive, Sarla had worked non-stop every single day of her life for years and one of the reasons behind her untimely demise was the fact that she dedicated her life to make the lives of others better but never bothered about her own health. For instance, she would cook meals for hundreds of volunteers at social events but would forget to eat her meal.

Born on August 14, 1986 into a family of modest means in Balaghat, Madhya Pradesh, Sarla had to face many adversities while she was young … like the passing away of her elder sister when she was a child and not getting to spend time with her mother as she was mostly bedridden and away. Her father would repair flat tyres to make a living, but he was also a folk artiste. Sarla inherited many of the creative aspects from him. Participating in cultural events in school like singing, dancing and drama helped her escape from the harsh realities of her life. She also learnt the art of puppeteering, a talent that came in handy later in life when she travelled across some of the most remote and backward Adivasi regions to spread awareness using art as a medium.

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and continued her social work activities along with her husband

From 2013 until she passed away, she was associated with various organizations in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Jharkhand. She used the mediums of song, dance, skits and puppets to spread awareness among people living in backward Adivasi villages. She was also a part of many peace marches and cycle yatras that were organized to appeal for peace in regions that were affected due to Naxal violence. While her journey had been incredible and she did some commendable work, but she kept neglecting her health. In fact, she was so immersed in her work that though I had known her for long, I had to wait for many years before she could find time to marry me. 

Sarla moved to Muzaffarpur and though she was new to the city, she started working soon after we got married. In a brief period of time, she befriended many people and touched many lives. I am also a social worker and an artist, and I was thrilled that I was getting to spend a lot of time with my wife as we would often travel together for work.

All those who had met her still feel the void of her passing away. For me, personally, it would be impossible to feel that void … ever. I still feel the pain of losing my life partner just eight months after getting married … a partner whom I had very patiently waited for, for years.

She was admitted in the hospital for 50 days. Her husband did all that he could to make her feel better

I thought the best way to try to get over the grief would be to continue the work she had dedicated her life to. We took small steps. For instance, during the lockdown, we collected funds from those who were willing to contribute and helped the underprivileged with food and ration. With the help of journalists and NGOs, we worked on a project that helped those who had lost their jobs during the lockdown to find some form of employment. We distributed food packets and used art as a medium to stop people from falling into the trap of depression and anxiety.  

On Sarla’s 34th birthday in August 2020, her first after her demise, I invited all those from across India who had worked with Sarla over the years and together we pledged to keep her work alive. In the last year, I took over the projects she was involved in and I am trying to complete them. While the pain of losing her will never subside and the void will never get filled, the least I can do to keep her alive in my memories is to continue her work.

Ironically, March 21, the day she passed away, is celebrated as World Puppetry Day.

(Image credit: Sarla Siriwas’ Facebook page)

Sunil Kumar’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Eshwari Shukla’s story here. She lost her father when she was only 13.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case, it being Sunil Kumar and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“Suddenly, while talking to someone over the phone, my grandfather started referring to my father as ‘body’”

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 

…..

It’s been 12 years. At times, it feels as if it happened yesterday and, at times, it feels as if one lifetime has passed. The date was February 29. The year was 2008. The landline rang in the morning and my grandfather got up to receive the call. I was around 13. I was sitting there, aimlessly flipping through the pages of a newspaper that was in front of me. I don’t remember very clearly what happened next. Those moments are still somewhat blurred. Sepia-tinted. My grandfather would lovingly call my father ‘babu’. Suddenly, while talking to someone over the phone, he started referring to my father as ‘body’ and not ‘babu’. He kept the receiver down. We were told that my father had passed away in an accident. The car he was travelling in had collided with a truck. My father was no more. It didn’t really sink in at that moment.

Eshwari Shukla

Soon, the house was full of people. Arrangements were being made. I could see stunned, teary-eyed faces around me. I could hear the hushed condolences. I was quite numb, but I could hear the conversations.    

It was very strange for me to accept his sad and sudden end. Just two years before my father passed away, we had lost our grandmother. That was the first time I had dealt with the sadness of someone leaving this world. But my father’s death was quite unreal. People who had gathered in the house were saying things like my grandmother loved my father so much that she called him to be with her within two years of her passing away. Those conversations scared me. I was 13. I was not a child, but I was not grown up enough to understand the complexities of death or such conversations. It felt as if someone else was about to die that day.

The news came in the morning, the body arrived at night. Those hours were full of anxiety. When I heard a vehicle approach our house, my heart beats started racing. The ‘body’ was home. As it was an accidental death, a post-mortem was conducted. His eyes were partially open. There were bloodstains on the plastic sheet in which he was wrapped in. His body was covered with a white cloth. He was kept on a mat beneath the mango tree that was in our courtyard. My elder sister sat near his feet. She was occasionally touching him, probably to ensure it was indeed him. I sat next to her. I have never mentioned this to anyone ever, but I did not touch my father’s body. I just could not. There was a moment when a helicopter (a flying insect) sat on his foot. I touched his foot to shoo it away. That was the last time I had touched my father.

Writing helps Eshwari deal with painful emotions and memories

His death was so sudden that we didn’t even know how we were supposed to deal with the loss. We were just not prepared. I remember my mother would play Ludo with us all day long. She would read the entire newspaper … from the first printed word to the last. She was well-versed with everything that was happening in the country then. This was how she spent her days. To be in a zone, far away from the reality … that was probably her coping mechanism. It was strange for me to see her in a white saree. I thought I would have to see her draped in a white saree all my life. She stopped putting her bindi. Her empty forehead would remind me of the sudden vacuum in our lives. Her hands would look strange without the colourful bangles. She gave away her toe ring, a tradition which married women in India follow, to our house help.  

There are things we take for granted. Until my father was alive, I never bothered to think about what kind of father he was. I don’t think about it even today. He would fulfil all my wishes. He bought me a Barbie watch and high-heeled sandals. He bought a payal for me and some makeup when I took part in a school function. What more can a 13-year-old girl ask for from her father? He was working elsewhere and would come home on the weekends. He was a little strict. But I remember he would tell me stories at night and take me on rides on his scooter. But, for me, he was just that … my father. It was nice to have him around, but I wouldn’t miss him much when he wasn’t. My eyes would always search for my mother. Her comforting presence was an important essence of my life. It still is.

For Eshwari, her mother is her emotional strength

After my father passed away, my mother moved to Lucknow. She had to explore ways to be financially secure. There was a time when I could not imagine living away from my mother. And now she was in another city and I had to get used to that. Life, as they say, is an amazing teacher.

I dealt with the grief of my father’s passing away in a strange, but mature way. I stopped taking part in school functions to cut down on expenses. I stopped wearing Barbie watches. I became a quiet person. I wanted to be with my mother all the time, so much so that I even hated going to school. As a child, it was probably the fear of losing her as well. To be with her, to spend time with her, to touch her, to hug her … these were probably my coping mechanisms. Now, I am grown up enough to understand the complexities of life … and death. She continues to remain at the core of my universe. I do miss my father. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if he were alive today. One thing though has remained consistent in all these years. My father would fulfil all my wishes. After he passed away, I have not asked for anything from anyone.

Eshwari Shukla’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Gurudas Pai’s story here. Pai lost his mother to cancer in 1989. Four years later, he lost his father on the day of his wedding.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case, it being Eshwari Shukla and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“Losing my mother to cancer and my father on the day of my wedding were the biggest setbacks of my life”

Gurudas Pai’s life suddenly changed in the span of four years. He had no option but to face these adverse situations, but, according to him, those intense episodes of darkness were also the best teachers. What keeps him going? It’s a poem by Walter Wintle. Read his first-person account  

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The darkest moments in life are the ones wherein you see the person who you love the most go through an unending agony and gradually slip into the claws of death. What’s worse? There is nothing that you can do but to see them sink every single day.

In 1989, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was in the last stage. Though she was operated upon, cancer managed to spread to her lungs. To see her smile through the agony for our sake was heartbreaking. She battled the disease for 10 months, but breathed her last at the age of 52. I was 25 then and my sisters were 22 and 17, respectively. All of us pitched in to take care of the household. Keeping ourselves occupied helped us deal with the painful emotions. My father and the youngest sister would slip into depression if they saw the two of us struggling, so we would not bring up any such topic that would make any of us upset. We were each other’s strength. There was a great deal of sorrow but we would laugh once in a while to overcome the intense episodes of darkness. That gave us the strength to deal with the loss of our mother. Amma, I love you.

This, however, was not it. Life had some more tricks up its sleeves. I have no words to express the sorrow of suddenly losing my father, that too on one of the happiest occasions of my life … my wedding day. He died a lonely death just four hours after I got married. He went to take a nap in the hotel room, suffered a heart attack, was taken to a hospital, but could never return home.

My mother’s death had probably created a vacuum in his life which we could not fill. The weight of many responsibilities and a lack of companionship bogged him down. He was a diabetic. He was not an alcoholic, but he enjoyed his drinks, and occasionally smoked too. My younger sister got married in 1989, eight months after my mother’s death. I got married on August 26, 1992. The same day I lit my father’s pyre. My father, 64, was gone forever. Anna, I love you.

After his demise, we felt as if a storm blew away the roof over our heads. The situation was bizarre and delicate. The suddenness of the situation led to some conflicts in the house — I was newly married and could not give enough time to deal with the situation, my wife had walked into something very unusual for a new bride, and my youngest sister, who was still unmarried, was dealing with a lot of insecurity. My father had started looking for a prospective groom for her while he was still alive. So, it wasn’t difficult for me to take over the responsibility. My sister got married when she was 20 and moved to the US.  

He lost his father on the day of his wedding

Adversities are the best teachers. I have learnt this the hard way. Losing my parents and dealing with that grief in a way prepared me to deal with the ups and downs of life in a better way. Hence, in 2018, when my wife and I parted ways after 26 years of our marriage, I was better equipped to deal with those painful emotions. It was heart-wrenching to see our children put up a brave front and smile through our separation process. Today, we are cordial with each other and my daughter’s wedding was a perfect example of this. At times, one has to live with the guilt of not having given a ‘normal’ life to one’s children.

Pain, separation, heartbreaks and setbacks are various chapters of life. Every person is wounded in some way or the other. What I have learnt from my experiences is to face your demons and make peace with the fact that things happen because they are destined to happen in a particular way. Acceptance is the key. Never run away from the setbacks. It’s probably the reason I found love again and remarried. 

Pai with his sisters

While coping with my grief, these are the important lessons that I learnt. 

Always remember to get up and get going. There are people around you for whom you are precious. Identify them. Share your joys, sorrows and experiences with them. Be kind to others as everyone is nursing a wound. Never hesitate to ask for help. If you like someone, walk up to him/her and tell him. Lastly, be passionate about something in life. For me, my political activities keep me going. I am determined to make a difference, and I will.

This poem by Walter Wintle has always helped me deal with my emotions in a better way:

If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”

Gurudas Pai’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Darshana Shukul’s story here. In 1986, Darshana lost her mother soon after her baby brother was born. She was just five. 

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case it being Gurudas Pai, and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)

“Hope keeps the ship sailing … a faint hope that 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 this 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

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Life sometimes brings joy and sorrow wrapped in one gift parcel. Such experiences leave you speechless, numb, and empty. And, when such surprises are thrown at you in your childhood, you are left with no option but to accept the gift with a heavy heart and teary eyes.

I was all but five … naughty, demanding, and a brat … but everything changed soon after I was blessed with a baby brother. While my younger sibling arrived as a bundle of joy, the arms that wrapped him were that of my father. My mother chose to head to heaven instead of coming back home along with my brother.

The year was 1986. Memories of that day are still fresh in my mind even today. I remember jumping into one of the cars that was heading towards the hospital. When all the relatives got off from the car, I pretended to be a part of the crowd. And then I saw my mother lying on the hospital bed … pale and making every effort in the universe to hold on to life. Our eyes met. We looked at each other as if we were strangers and time stood still between us. I was too young to have a proper conversation and she was so exhausted that she could not say anything. But, in those silent moments, we communicated with each other without actually saying a word. In those silent moments, I promised her to be her Atta Girl! I promised her that her daughter will be a force to reckon with. In her faint smile, she knew her girl will hold on to life, a luxury she no longer had.

A young Darshana with her mother

Life changed overnight for this little girl. For a few months after my mother passed away, nobody in the house held me or calmed me down. I spent months crying but, in my brother, I saw a ray of hope. He was my gift, the reason why I wanted to live. So, at five, I became a mother. My world had ceased to exist the way it was, but his world became the center of my universe.

My father, in the interim, got married. Being a child, I could not understand the concept of calling another woman a ‘mother’. One day, I was introduced to my stepmom. We did not connect. She was my father’s new wife, and I was his biological daughter. Even at that tender age, my instinct instructed me to distance myself from my papa. His world had changed for the better and he had embraced it with an open mind and a smile. For me, I was left to deal with life all by myself. I lived in a joint family set up. I think I just grew up on my own. There was no support system. Unlike other children in the house, I had no one to throw tantrums at. There were no wish lists, no fancy birthday parties, or a room to call my own. When I cried, no one hugged or comforted me. Even in those lonely hours, the divine force within me held the strings of my heart.

Then there was this promise that I had held on to … the promise I had made to my mother that I would be her Atta Girl. I started to write stories, build an imaginative world and sought solace in God’s grace. And then, absentmindedly, I befriended books. It was from here that my dreams began to germinate. Every book, every author was akin to my mother. The world of words held the reins of my life, my mind, and my dreams. My world started to reverberate with rhythm, verve, and vitality. The dimpled smile was back and, like a possessed soul, I took the world head-on … like a warrior.

Darshana shares a special bond with her brother

I began to dream. I began to fall in love with the idea of love (thanks to Shahrukh Khan and his romantic movies). I made friends who found my innocence endearing. My teachers, both in school, and college were great mentors. They believed in ‘Darshana’ and encouraged me to appreciate my work. There were times when my answer sheets were discussed and applauded in front of the class toppers. It was in moments like these that my heart would swell with pride and life gave me reasons to smile.

These little spurts of encouragement helped me pave my way in the otherwise competitive world. From clandestinely working for a local agency in the initial years to getting an opportunity to work with one of the biggest newspapers in Asia, life was finally beginning to be kind. I felt normal; as if I belonged, and the financial independence that came along with these jobs gave me wings to fly and live my dream.

There was a time when my brother and I had just started working. We would go to small eateries near our office, scan the menu and order the least priced item. But we were still happy that we were in a position to treat ourselves. We soon graduated from this phase to a phase where we could enter a fancy eatery, say a Pizza Hut, not look at the price and order whatever we wanted. That gave us the confidence that soon we would start living life our way.

Darshana with her daughter

I am now married and so is my brother. I am reliving my childhood through my daughter. Her little arms are my entire world. Her smile, her hugs, and her unconditional love have erased all the pain. There are no bad days anymore. In my daughter, I see my mother. It’s as if she has come back to heal me. My husband’s passion for life and music is infectious and he has given me the stability that I had always dreamt of.

Life continues to challenge me. The rides get fiercer, but my spirit stays buoyant. Even the murky waters and rough terrains could not take away my innocence. However, somewhere deep inside my heart, a faint hope is still alive … a hope that I would meet my mother someday. I feel as if she is hiding somewhere and I will get to hear her, touch her and hug her. Perhaps it’s this hope that keeps the ship sailing. The real treasure of life is not buried under the deep sea, but it is right there in the boat that you are sailing in … it is the little thing called ‘life’ that beats in your heart.

Darshana Shukul’s account is a part of our series on ‘Stories of Loss and Healing’. Read Lakshmi Kaul’s story here. Kaul lost her only daughter, aged nine, to a freak allergic incident in 2017.

(Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the account above belong solely to the authorin this case it being Darshana Shukul, and not that of The Good Story Project or its co-founders.)