For generations, prostitution has provided the only means of economic survival for some tribes in the Indian desert. Now, a handful of schools are teaching kids that a life outside the sex industry is possible.
In India’s financial capital Mumbai, Pinkie has entertained the “richest to the poorest men” since she was 20 years old.
For 10 years, she sang and danced for lawyers, doctors and tradesman before leading them to a small bed in the corner of her one-room home.
“There are only one or two men we can enjoy. But we have to have sex with so many people how do we enjoy it? We are doing it for money, so it’s not a question of enjoyment,” she said.
Pinkie lives in Malwadi slum in the outer suburbs of Mumbai and insisted on anonymity while talking to Deutsche Welle. She is now retired but her three sisters and 16-year-old daughter continue to work in the sex industry to support her and the rest of their family.
Born into the sex industry
The women are from the Kanjar community – an ancient tribe in Rajasthan, which like the Nats have come to rely on prostitution for economical survival.
According to the Mumbai-based NGO Summitra Trust, more than 1,200 Nat and Kanjar women work in Malwadi’s sex industry, where they face the threat of imprisonment, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Before British colonisation, the tribes were entertainers for the ruling families. But when the British came their traditions were lost and they turned to prostitution out of economic necessity.
Now it’s just a matter of social condititioning, according to Surbhi Dayal, a researcher from Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been studying the communities’ family structure for almost a decade.
“If you see your mother who is a married woman doing household work from 4am until 11pm, and your aunt who is an unmarried sex worker always dressed up and able to fulfill whatever you ask of her because she has money, then definitely a girl is going to take up to prostitution not a married life,” Dayal said.
A family matter
While the men earn little money – occasionally working as their sisters’ or daughters’ pimps – the majority of women get married or become sex workers.
“They [the parents] decide around 10 to 12 years of age if a girl is quite talkative and attractive then she pursues sex work but if a girl is shy or she is not very good looking … she will get married,” Dayal said.
When Dayal first learnt about these practices she said she was indignant.
“I kept thinking, ‘How someone can do like this, how women can just go to prostitution? How men can just sit in the house pimping for sisters or daughters?’”
The answer, she said, was poverty.
Path out of poverty
Although Rajasthan attracts tourists with its grand palaces and colorful handiworks, it remains one of India’s poorest states.
Almost 40 percent of people are illiterate and the average income is just over one euro a day.
In contrast, prostitutes working in India’s big cities can make up to 80 euros ($110) a night.
But the extra income has come at a high price. The community faces intense social stigma and the majority of children remain uneducated, which leads to another generation of girls being forced into prostitution.
After witnessing the poor standard of local government schools and watching the pattern of prostitution repeat itself in the Nat and Kanjar communities in Alwar, social worker Nirvana Bodhisattva set up Nirvanavan Foundation.
The foundation, which opened in 2001, runs 12 schools, 10 of which cater specifically to the Nat and Kanjar communities, and provides free education to children aged between 5 and 10.
One of these modest schools is at Kalsara Bagh, a small village split by a highway that links Rajasthan to Delhi.
Along the road, women laze around on grass beds and plastic chairs waiting for customers. Most of these are truck drivers who will pay the equivalent of between 1 euro and 7 euros for time with the women.
In the heart of this village, Bodhisattva and his team have set up a one-room school, which blends the community’s traditions of dance and song with Hindi, English and math lessons in order to maintain the students’ interest.
“We began with one school and at that time; we had two teachers and about 60 students,” Bodhisattva said. “Now we have about 520 children.”
Running the schools, however, remains a challenge. Lack of funds led to five schools temporarily closing and gaining the communities’ trust is an ongoing battle, Bodhisattva said.
“The community depends on that profession and the men live on the money that the women earn, so we are a threat,” he said.
A future outside of prostitution will not happen overnight, but a new future is slowly emerging, Bodhisattva said. A former female student is currently studying to become a doctor and several boys have gone on to mainstream schools.
The children now have aspirations, added Anju Singh Rajput, a teacher at the school.
“They are becoming aware of their education,” Rajput said. “They have a dream to become a teacher a doctor because they read about these things in the books. Now they even ask for homework.”
The action might take place in India, but at the heart of this next story is a question wondered all over the world: is astrology bunkum?
One Mumbai-based group believes it is, and that India’s many astrologists – not to mention palmologists, gemologists, and other practitioners of the predictive arts – are taking advantage of superstitious and often vulnerable clients.
Astrologers have been guiding Indians since the fifth century: helping them navigate marriages, illness and monsoon rains. Now the NGO Janhit Manch is petitioning the Bombay High Court to clamp down on the industry and on astrology advertising.
Monsoon is Somar Devji Maghi’s favourite time of year. An iridescent green has swept across the ground and for the next four months, Somar will plant, turn soil and watch his farm grow.
The 26-year-old lives in Dandwal, a small village in Gujarat, in India’s South. Somar wishes he could spend his whole year here but he can’t grow enough to support the family. When monsoon ends he works on other people’s farms making just 60 Rupees – or one Euro – a day.
As India pushes forward with its quest for development, small farmers like Somar are getting left behind, according to Vijaya Pastala.
“Gujarat is the fastest growing state but there are still many tribal villages that don’t have electricity. Not many finish school, not many go to college, women are married early. A lot of them are loan-dependent, money-lender-dependent.”
A sustainable solution
Vijaya Pastala is the CEO of Under the Mango Tree (UTMT), a company that links organic small farms to a national market.
After witnessing tribal life in Gujarat, Vijaya was determined to help. In March 2009 she launched the not-for-profit Bees For Poverty Reduction Program.
Farmers buy a starter kit of two bright blue bee boxes at 2,500 Rupees or 42 Euros. They then undergo an intensive training program, where they learn how to find, capture, box and care for the indigenous bee – Apis cerena.
Beekeeping in India is not like beekeeping in the West. There is no protective suit, it’s just your bare skin up against thousands of potentially angry bees. It takes patience, persistence and courage.
“I’ve been stung up to 100 times in a single day when boxing hives,” UTMT’s bee expert Atar Singh said. However, as Jhula Mahado found out, the pain pays off when you hit pay dirt for the first time.
For months, Jhula has been carefully tending his hive. Every two days he checks the combs making sure that they are sheltered from the wind and rain.
Each day he watched as swarms of black and gold entered the box carrying packs of pollen.
As Atar opens the box to show, more than 45 thousands bees swarm around rich yellow combs, oozing with honey. The combs are cut and the honey extracted.
Jhula will make 16 Euros from this batch. He should be able to collect honey every 15 to 20 days for the next four months. It’s a huge boost to his average annual income, which is less than 170 Euros per year.
More than just honey
According to Atar, the rewards of beekeeping go even further.
“Honey is just a by product or direct advantage to the beekeepers. The indirect advantages are much more, even in terms of monetary benefits. Having bees helps to increase their agricultural productivity through pollination. Bees are responsible for 80 percent pollination for the crop, which increases about 35 to 40 percent of yield,” he explained.
More importantly, Atar said, beekeeping is helping his favourite bee, Apis cerena, make a long- needed comeback.
The Cerena is an indigenous Indian bee – famous for its small size and ability to crawl into delicate flowers. But their population is dwindling due to loss of habitat and disease.
One of the worst health scares, Atar explained, started in 1972 with the introduction of Apis mellifera – a European bee.
“Apis mellifera could actually produce 75 to 85 kilos of honey versus Apis cerena which could only produce 5 to 7 kilos of honey. But within six months a viral disease known as sad brood had been introduced and it caused a lot of harm to the indigenous bee population.”
The other threat has been India’s tradition of honey hunting.
Searching for gold
Somu Sotru is a traditional honey hunter. He goes into the forest, finds a hive, smokes it until the bees leave and then crushes it to get the honey.
“We go into the forest with an axe and cut the honey comb. We squeeze the honey and throw the combs away. We collect it into plastic bags and then sell it,” Somu said.
Somu has two bee boxes on his farm, but when Atar opens them, the hives are empty and covered in white webs, created by wax moths. Somu lacks the patience required to care for bees, and still views honey hunting as a quick fix.
Although some older farmers like Somu remain unconvinced of the benefits of beekeeping, others like Somar Devji Maghi have embraced the opportunity.
The program has trained 600 farmers, out of which 100 are master trainers like Somar. They help farmers catch, keep and care for the bees.
“Now it’s just seven people who have taken up this activity. I want more people to take up this activity, as well as the landless. I want the activities to be so good that you take the name of our village everywhere you go,” Somar said.
Somar has already noticed an increase of productivity this year. He has collected cucumbers every three days, compared to every six and hopes to have eight to ten bee boxes on his farm by the end of next year.
Parsis have played an important cultural and economic role in India’s development. They are behind the giant multinational Tata Group, the national airline Air India and Mumbai’s famous Taj Palace Hotel. But despite their prosperity, the Parsis are facing extinction.
More than 1000 years before the birth of Christ, followers of the Zoroastrian faith were worshipping fire and preaching free will. But when their homeland Iran was attacked in the seventh century by Muslim invaders, they were massacred and persecuted. Many fled in search of religious freedom – and most landed on India’s shores, where they became known as Parsis.
Yet India’s last census in 2001 reported that there were less than 70,000 Parsis left.
Listen to my report on the Parsis’ fight for survival and why their demise is creating rifts within their community.
Each day approximately 10 people die on Mumbai’s suburban train system. Some get hit while crossing the tracks, while others die from falling off or being electrocuted by overhead wires. Despite the alarming figures, the Indian government has done little to prevent this loss of life.
It’s peak hour in Mumbai and millions of commuters are pushing their way into trains.
To successfully get on board, you must employ a number of tactics. First, there’s yelling to intimidate your fellow traveler. Then comes the shoving, pushing and elbowing. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself inside a carriage, sandwiched against thousands of sweaty bodies.
Six million Mumbaiites use the suburban network each day, with most funneling back and forth from the city’s commercial district in the south.
It’s survival of the fittest here on the train and there’s simply not enough room for everybody.
There’s an old saying in Mumbai – “Survive the trains, survive anything”. I was interested in doing a story before I left about the daily experience of the city’s commuters. Listen to my story on what makes Mumbai’s trains so deadly.
A few times every year, the streets of Mumbai turn into a carnival and recently, the guest of honor Ganesh, the elephant headed, roly-poly god of new beginnings. After 10 days of a homestay, families and communities accompany him to his final immersion in water, where his Earthen form breaks down and returns to the earth from which it came.
If that sounds poetic, I am overstating the case. The festival is far from serene. It’s a garish, uproarious mess that wreaks havoc on traffic as well as mental peace for the duration.
For 11 days, you find yourself humming these aartis or prayers Idols of Ganesh are set up on his birthday – Ganesh Chaturthi. It’s a state holiday in India so people can go ‘Ganesh shopping’ at their local warehouse and markets. Which Ganesh statue you bring home is a matter of personal taste. They can range from six inches high to several feet tall, all blessed by a priest.
Neighborhoods also come together and set up mandals or stalls. Prayers are conducted every few hours and the zealous even set off firecrackers.
For 10 days, Ganesh is treated like a revered member of the extended family. At the end of the festival he is loaded onto a truck and trundled to a designated beach. On day one, five and seven the smaller immersions, or visarjans are relatively quieter affairs. On the last day it’s on a much larger scale.
Last year, nearly 19 billion idols were immersed over the course of the festival. This year, officials estimate that the total reached 21 billion.
There is a final cry of ganpati, or father, hurry back next year from the participants on the beaches before Ganesh is lowered into the water. For some people that’s an interminable wait, but for us Mumbaikars, the peace is short lived.
Words by Chhavi Sachdev. Photographs by Lauren Farrow
The Commonwealth Games is a manifestation of India’s dark side. It has all the elements: political corruption, disorganisation, shoddy workmanship, filthy accomodation, stray dogs and king cobras.
When Delhi was awarded the games, many believed it was an opportunity to show just how far the country had come. The games would prove that India was more than just slums, paan stains and choked up rickshaws. Instead it has become a national disgrace.
India’s inboxes are now flooded with CWG jokes – proving that in a crisis sometimes comedy is the only remedy.
Here are some of the more popular quips making the rounds:
Suresh Kamadi just tried to hang himself in the CWG stadium. But the ceiling collapsed.
Look at the brighter side; the more countries pull out, the higher India is ranked in the final medal tally.
Terrorists set to skip CWG 2010 citing unlivable conditions and fear for their safety.
Q: How many contractors are required to change a light bulb in Delhi CWG stadium? A: 1 Million. (1 to change bulb and rest 999,999 to hold the ceiling)
Ba ba Kalmadi, have you any shame. No sir, No sir, its a Common Loot Game. Crores for my partner, crores for the dame, crores for me too, for spoiling India’s name!
Next edition of CWG will be called KWG, Kalmadi Wealth Games
I caught up with a couple of Delhiites to find out their reaction to the CWG
Opium is big business in India. In 2007 alone, India produced almost 350 tones of raw, legal opium for the international pharmaceutical industry. Despite strict monitoring of poppy farms, some of the opium always makes its way to the black market.
Opium’s ready availability coupled with its use in traditional ceremonies has led to high levels of addiction in the Western state of Rajasthan. At the frontline of this battle is a small detoxification centre. For almost three decades the centre has been helping addicts using unique and sometimes controversial methods.
Sitting on the sand under the relentless desert sun, twenty men are stretching into mountain and lotus poses.
It’s day six of a detox program, at the Opium De-Addiction Treatment Centre in Rajasthan, in India’s west. The men are battling serious addictions but little strain shows on their faces as they follow the directions of their instructor, Narendra Singh Chouhan.
Chouhan says yoga helps ease the men’s withdrawal symptoms, which include muscle spasms, vomiting and insomnia.
“Yoga increases first the mental concentration and gives him peace of mind. It also relaxes the body physically.”
Among the men is 31-year-old Subhash who comes from Haryana – Rajasthan’s neighbouring state. Subhash received no drug education during school and never knew that opium was addictive.
“Most of the labourers in the rice mill where I work are addicted to opium. They started giving me little bits here and there and I started taking it. I didn’t think there would be a problem.”
Two years later Subhash was spending four out of every five dollars he earned to support his habit.
In India’s desert state of Rajasthan summer temperatures can soar up to 50 degrees centigrade. Here electricity can be as elusive as rain. Blackouts are an everyday experience for most. While in some villages, electricity is non-existent. Now, the government and NGOs are looking to the sky to solve the state’s electricity woes.
Sandhya Rai is married with three children, and lives in a small village in Bihar, in Central India. Her family often live on less than one US dollar a day and they have no access to electricity.
“In my village there is no electricity. To see electricity we have to walk 20 to 30 kilometres to the nearest town.”
Almost 20 per cent of India’s villages have no electricity.
And Rajasthan, according to the Indian Government’s Central Electricity Authority, is one of the ten states which is lagging behind the national average.
Bunker Roy is the founder of Barefoot College, which is training women on how to install and repair solar panels in India’s villages.
“The electricity situation in Rajasthan is grim. Power cuts galore, these conventional grid systems are expensive, wasteful and they spike a lot and usually you have bulbs bursting because of the spiking.”
However, Rajasthan does have one distinct advantage over other Indian states, says Professor Vijay who is the Director of the Centre for Non Conventional Energy Resources, at the University of Rajasthan. He says that the desert state just needs to start thinking creatively about energy.
“We are lucky in Rajasthan that throughout the year more than 10 hours a day we get a very bright sunshine…If we plan to have a solar plant in big cities then at least 20 to 30 percent of their electricity need can be supplemented with the solar energy technology.”
But, he admits, there is still a while to go before solar energy is both affordable and effective enough to be used on a large scale.
“The city like Jaipur which has a population nearing about .5 million, so it is very difficult to make a solar plant to justify the need for the whole city. However, a small plant can be built in an area of about five kilometers square and which can justify the needs of about .01 million people.”
The Barefoot College in Rajasthan has adopted an even more localised approach to solar energy. They are taking solar panels straight to the homes in India’s villages where there is no electricity. At the college, women undergo an intensive six-month training course, during which they learn how to install and maintain solar panels.
“We are hoping to have technically and financially self-sufficient villages, which are not dependant on anybody from outside.”
Once they have finished their training, the women will be able to install simple solar packs that can charge a lantern, as well as a mobile phone.
The packs, which costs less than 130 US dollars each, aren’t powerful enough to run a computer or television – but they will drastically improve village life.
“For the first time you are delivering babies through traditional midwives using solar lanterns instead of candles and instead of torches and batteries. You also have communication channels opening up. The first time you have a solar lantern in a village and women have started gossiping otherwise you will be spending a night in the dark.”
Sandhya Rai is among the women learning at the college. When she returns to her village in three months, Sandhya will introduce electricity. It will change their lives forever, she says.
“These solar lamps they will really help the children, because they can have night schools. We won’t have to worry now about spending a lot of money on kerosene for lamps at night, so we will be able to afford to give our children an education. I want my children to learn English, so they can have better lives.”
At the Barefoot College, Roy believes they have proven that solar energy is a viable and affordable alternative for Rajasthan’s villages.
“We have shown that with 2.5 million dollars you can train about 140 grandmothers, you can solar electrify 10,000 houses, you can save about 100,000 litres of kerosene a month.”
Now he is just waiting for the rest of India to catch on.
“There are over a 100,000 villages in India today, which will never have conventional grid. You have to go alternative.”
About me – Feature writer, photographer, broadcast journalist
I am a journalist who lives in Sydney, Australia.
Until recently, I was living and working in India's largest city, Mumbai. I burnt my tonsils on vada pav and mastered the Indian head wobble, while roaming the country working for print, radio, online and photography. I have worked for Deutsche Welle Radio, KBR68H's Asia Calling, The Hindustan Times, YEN and CLEO. Read about my traveling adventures, watch multimedia on India’s festival celebrating the elephant God or discover the world of skin suspension.
It’s now six months since I left India to come back to Sydney and I’m dreaming of going back to Rajasthan. In lieu of that, here is a series of shots I took while traveling through the desert state in October last year.
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For generations, prostitution has provided the only means of economic survival for some tribes in the Indian desert. Now, a handful of schools are teaching kids that a life outside the sex industry is possible. Story aired Deutsche Welle Radio World in Progress, March 2,2011 Story published on Deutshce Welle Online, March 2, 2011 In […]