Email 16: June 26, 2006
"The obstacles hampering India's progress--poor infrastructure, weak government, searing inequality, corruption and crime--converge in Bombay. Although India boasts more billionaires than China, 81% of its population lives on $2 a day or less, compared with 47% of Chinese, according to the 2005 U.N. Population Reference Bureau Report. That class divide is starkest in cities like Bombay, where million-dollar apartments overlook million-population slums. For all its glitz, Bombay remains a temple to inefficiency. In 2003 it had one bus for every 1,300 people, two public parking spots for every 1,000 cars, 17 public toilets for every million people and one civic hospital for 7.2 million people in the northern slums, according to a report for the state government by McKinsey & Co. At least one-third of the population lacks clean drinking water, and 2 million do not have access to a toilet." - Times
"0.01% of the US Budget is directed towards foreign assistance." - Beth Hogan, USAID Mission Director of India
"Which country?" -- The most common 2 words spoken in English J
Photos are updated for Argentina, Uganda, Kenya, and Egypt - see them here.
Thank you those who responded to my last email. Goodness, I had no idea so many of you read every sentence. What I most enjoyed was how that many of the thoughtful and deep responses came from people who are not immediate family or best friends.
There are so many people you meet in life and you never realize how you may affect someone else. I cannot wait to further develop those relationships when I get home and it only proved to me that everyone has something to say, but not everyone listens. I have had some great conversations in the past week about politics, India, and much more.
So, take the time to meet someone new or call an old acquaintance and ramble . . . you never know what you may discover about someone else's life. So, a Big Thank You . . . you know who you are!
I figured after last week's more serious email, I needed to shed some light on Indian culture and life as an observer. A lot has happened since my last email. India is full of surprises, to say the least . . . A few things . . .
So, Is India the Un-China, the future powerhouse of Asia? With increased economic growth and stronger ties with the United States, what is the future of India? As Asia's largest democracy, the US cannot get enough of India. Everyday, more companies choose to outsource their labor to India. The IT industry continues to boom. Foreign investment grows, but development staggers.
On the other hand, it does not take a politician or an economist to see India's true reality. Poverty engulfs the entire country from north to south, east to west. It is inescapable.
After spending two and half weeks in India, I have been introduced to not only India's sheer poverty, but its vibrant culture. Both of which are unlike anywhere else I have traveled this year. Even in Delhi's tourist hub, Connaught Place area, you pass up-scale cafes and people sleeping on the side of the road on make shift beds. Outside of my Delhi hotel, mysteriously appeared outside the door at sunset to beg and sell flowers.
However, it was not until I took a trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal did I truly witness India's extreme poverty. My train departed at 6 am. I left my hotel at 5:20 am. 5:20 am is a perfect time in Delhi: no traffic, no pollution, no horns, and the fierce sun has yet to attack. But, at the same time, the beds and tents line the sidewalks. In Delhi and other cities, the poor have no where else to sleep than the streets. They lack the materials to build their houses or there is no "land available." But, this is no what opened my eyes to the magnitude of India's poverty.
As our train departed at 6 am, other trains from the outskirts of Delhi were pulling in. Train cars without A/C, only metal bars on the windows, packed with people like sardines. And then there were the street children and orphans that were hanging out from the doorways. I watched them one-by-one as they jumped off the train before it pulled into the Delhi train station. But, it was the 30 minutes following our departure that was unlike anything I've seen in the world.
To be blunt, I saw more than 100 men defecating just passed the train tracks or in nearby fields. If you don't have a home or a toilet, you must take care of business elsewhere. I never thought I would see it. The men were close enough that you could see their faces. Men and boys scattered across plots of land, but not a women in sight. (Fast forward, after a week in Ahmedabad, I was informed that poorer women are required to use the toilet before dawn and after dusk. They must wait throughout the day.)
On a lighter note, there is another image that was spectacular, the Taj Mahal. It was incredible and as many people have said, you cannot describe its beauty. I was lucky enough to meet a Brazilian girl to spend the day with and take photos. It was so nice to spend the afternoon with someone else and share stories. She had spent four months in Bangladesh to learn about the Grameen Bank to learn about microfinance.
What surprised me about Agra's Taj Mahal is that as one of the 7 Wonders of the World and major tourist destination, Agra is extremely undeveloped. Outside of the Taj, a Hilton Hotel, and a Pizza Hut, Agra is a struggling town. On the one hand, it is nice to see that tourist areas are not over commercialized, but on the other hand, when you pay 750 Rupees ($16) to visit the Taj Mahal, where is the money going?
The day was great. We even made an end of the day stop at Pizza Hut for ice cream, recommended by our driver. Not surprising, the entire restaurant was full of tourists. The Pizza Hut male staff went on to perform an elaborate Bangra dance, India's trendy hip-hop like music. It was hysterical.
After my return to Delhi, I had the opportunity to site see, collect my Chinese Visa, and meet the USAID Mission Director, Beth Hogan. I was privileged to have the opportunity to meet Mrs. Hogan as the Mission Director. I was not so lucky in Guatemala to meet the mission director.
Our meeting was fantastic and re-energized me for the last 2.5 months (now nearly 2) of my trip. We discussed the role and function of USAID and how they carry out development work. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of NGOs. We explored the impact of corporation partnerships and their Global Development Alliances. (Which made me think, what is the social responsibility of universities?)
She was frank, candid, and sincere. She explained how USAID is a tool for change and development, but only as a further extension of US foreign policy. We discussed how sometimes our foreign policy agenda may not compliment some development initiatives, and money will be allocated differently. For example, it is sad to say, that the women's legal rights/aid division of USAID lacks funding and has reduced operations. Obviously, women's legal rights are a sensitive issue, but it lacks importance on the policy agenda and there is no "free money" to give them. The basic legal rights of women are critical to the development of India (and the rest of the developing world as demonstrated with the Rape-Sexual Assault Bills in Congo and Kenya).
What I most loved about our meeting was meeting such a dynamic woman (and the fact that she is a Hogan). Mrs. Hogan exemplifies how a woman can succeed in development work, have a family, be happily married, and run one of the most important USAID missions. She talked about her career and what it takes to pursue a career, and how she started. She was frank about how if I am looking to "talk about saving the world," I need to pursue an NGO career, not USAID. I have met too many women, young and old, who are overseas and working, but they are single, not married, divorced, etc. As much as I want to pursue an international career, a family and marriage are both important to me. Mrs. Hogan showed me that it was possible to have both the family and career.
Ahmedabad and SEWA-Self-Employed Women's Association
After a week in Delhi, I made my way south west to Ahmedabad, the seventh largest city in Delhi but not on the tourist itinerary. I have been in Ahmedabad for a week and a half observing SEWA, India's largest labor union for women.
I have enjoyed Ahmedabad, but it feels very big to me and not nearly as easy to navigate as Delhi. I stick around the hotel and SEWA which is less cosmopolitan than other areas of Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad is the capital of Gujarat state, where is the home of the Patel clan. Nearly 40% of Patels today are in the United States. This shows that there is considerable wealth is some parts of Ahmedabad, but not where I am. It was not until the other day did I even know they had McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and shopping centers. After seeing three elephants crossing the road, I was hardly expecting a large city. (I noticed later that the painted elephants are used in the market and Hindus feed them bananas as a prayer rite to Ganesh.)
SEWA is unlike any other organization that I have seen all year. SEWA is a movement rather than a program. SEWA is a member based organization for the poor, self employed women workers. These women are generally considered to a part of the "informal" or marginalized sector, but SEWA refrains from using such words and instead "self-employed" is used. These women are "vulnerable" (non-SEWA word) because they do not obtain regular salaried employment with benefits like workers in the organized sector. They are invisible workers. They are vendors, home workers, head loaders, labor/service providers, etc.
94% of India's Labor Force is "informal." SEWA's goal is for these women to organize and obtain full employment and self-reliance.
It is entirely run by Indian women and union members. It gains most of its financial support from the government. It is internationally know and praised for its model. It has 700,000 members across India, but most come from Gujarat (469,306). SEWA revolutionized how we look at poor women, their skills, their abilities and intelligence, and the capacity of one organization. SEWA is not charity and not aid. It is a union.
It has 96 cooperatives including dairy, fruit and vegetable vendors, rag/garbage pickers, cleaners, etc. It has a fully functional BANK cooperative, which provides savings and loans schemes to women and trains them in banking and management skills. SEWA offers life insurance, housing loans, jobs, networking, friendships, and training. Every member pays 5 rupees (44 Rps to 1 $) a year to be a member. Their insurance premiums are loan and only charge 1.5% interest on loans.
SEWA has a documentation center and film making production center. It has three stores selling SEWA products and one vegetable store. A majority of SEWA members are older women, but any female over 15 years old can join. SEWA helps both rural and urban women, the majority now rural and empower themselves to become self-reliant.
Other countries are trying to replicate SEWA in their countries because as a union it is not just NGO help or aid. These women are strong, sufficient, smart, and smiling. These women have accomplished plenty and are gaining support on a local, state, and national level. However, the fight is never over and of course there are always challenges along the way.
As SEWA Founder, Ela Bhatt said, "Injustice has three faces. First, there is the face of injustice that women see for themselves-that of the direct exploiter . . . The system that supports the direct exploiter is the second level of injustice, which includes government agencies and the legal structure. The women do not see it as readily un til they gain awareness . . . All this exploitation is made possible by injustice at the third and highest level-that of policy and law makers. Narrow minds, vested interests, and a complete disconnect with the realities of the poor are responsible for policies that are outdated, irrelevant, impractical, unenforceable, and at times out and out exploitative."
I have enjoyed visiting the bank, academy, design center, federation of cooperatives, the reception/training center, a forestry agriculture project, and the stores. I was lucky enough to tag along with members of the Nepalese Government Ministry of Gender and Health to some of the visits. They were all so friendly and I know if I ever make it to Nepal, I have good company to call.
I also was lucky enough to meet Bhumica, a 25 year old SEWA employee who has been showing me around etc. She has been great and I wish we would have spent a little more time together. She invited me to her house for water and snacks and to meet her family after she took me to bangle shopping in the market. The best part of going to her house was looking at her wedding album. With 1500 guests and a lot of gold, paint, and ornate saris, I think Dad will be okay with just a white wedding. Her pictures were fabulous and hopefully I'll have a few to share with you soon.
SEWA demonstrates the strength of dedication, hard work, women, cooperation, and reminds us to value what we have and give every day 100%!
Save the Girl Child and other newspaper articles
As I mentioned before, I look forward to reading the morning paper outside my door. The Save the Girl Child Articles have really caught my eye and alerted me to the present day realities of Indian girls and young women. Unfortunately, women have a long struggle ahead of them. Just read some of the headlines below:
Just by reading the headlines, you can tell India has a long way to go. Women need to be made a priority. And how can the US and foreign companies really invest in India in the long term, when the government has done little to bring progress or basic infrastructure and laws?
Other things to consider: India is bidding for the UN Secretary General Position after Kofi Annan leaves at the end of the year by electing Thoor. Does India deserve this position after 2 African leaders, the largest democracy in Asia, and it is also the largest, poorest country in the world?
Another interesting part of the newspaper is the "courting section." Trust me you won't find male, homosexual seeks... But rather, men seeking women by Caste. The section is divided by castes from the Brahmins and working down. They specify if they are looking for a women in the caste or if it matters. They of course mention if they were schooled outside India, etc. Truly, I can't imagine. (For some reason, I was even shocked when Bhumica, a Brahmin, had an arranged marriage in February. I wanted to ask her about how she felt, but clearly it wasn't appropriate.)
Who would mom and dad select for me? goodness.
The next few weeks
I have decided to leave Ahmedabad on Wednesday morning and head back to Delhi for a day and then take a train up north towards the Nepalese border. I will go to Amristar and see the Sikh Golden Temples and then to Dharmsala. I am looking forward to Dharmsala because it is home to the Dalai Lama! I hope to observe the many Buddhist monks, learn about the Tibetan refugees, and visit the many Human Rights organizations there. However, I am most excited for July 6th! It is the Dalai Lama's Birthday, a big celebration. (Hopefully, I find a hotel)
It should be quite the adventure and learning experience.
Anyways, it's getting late, but thankfully the internet cafe is quiet tonight. It generally has 30 some 12 year old boys playing video games or Bollywood movies.
I hope you all have a great week and Happy 4th of July if I don't email. It is my favorite holiday and this year I think it will be particularly special to reflect on how thankful I am for this opportunity and the opportunities at home.
All the best,