The long and lonely fight: Q&A with Indian tribal rights activist Soni Sori

This story was first published in Women Under Siege Project

— July 29, 2014

In a crowded auditorium at a conference on gender-based violence in Delhi this month, a frail woman sits, silently listening as lawyers and activists take turns to speak. When the discussion shifts to atrocities on adivasi (tribal) women, she takes center stage. When she speaks, the crowd listens in silence. Soni Sori, a schoolteacher, speaks about the fate of women in Chhattisgarh, an Indian state that has been engulfed in violence and conflict, with tribal civilians caught in the crossfire between Maoists and government security forces.

Within this mineral-rich Indian state, the genesis of conflict has been complex. It is a mix of deep neglect of the poor and also, some would say, lopsided development plans. But beyond simplistic explanations of conflict, undeniable is the loss of lives and brutality unleashed in the name of counterinsurgency and fighting for the poor. For years, women and children have born the brunt of this cruelty.

In 2013, at least 1,380 rapes were reported in Chhatisgarh, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. The controversial and now-disbanded Salwa Judum, a self-protection force formed with local civilians and later declared illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2011, face at least 99 counts of alleged rape since its inception in 2005.

It was against this backdrop that Soni Sori, all of 35, was arrested in 2011 and accused of being linked to the Naxals, an armed, left-wing extremist group that has waged war against the Indian state for decades. She was sexually tortured in custody. Human rights activists worldwide campaigned for her release. Amnesty International declared her a “prisoner of conscience,” turning the spotlight on atrocities she’d been subjected to. Now out on bail, Sori spoke to me about the inhumane sexual torture she endured, the dismal state of women’s prisons in Chhattisgarh, her fight ahead, and her optimism on women’s rights.


Priyali Sur: It’s been almost three years since you were first taken into police custody. Do you remember every detail?

Soni Sori: It was past 10 at night. I was asleep when the cops came and woke me up, saying the superintendent of police wanted to meet me. The superintendent, Ankit Garg, asked me to sign documents that would confirm I was involved with the Maoists. I refused. He then asked the lady constables to leave, warning them that what happened inside the police station that night should not be told to anyone.

The police officials started abusing me, calling me a whore and saying I indulge in sexual acts with Maoists. They stripped me naked, made me stand in an “attention” position and gave me electric shocks on various parts of my body. I still didn’t relent. They then shoved red chili powder inside my vagina. By now, I was losing consciousness, but I refused to sign the documents. The cops started inserting stones into my private parts. Many stones—so many that they started falling out. I finally collapsed.

The next morning, I could barely move when I was taken to court. My biggest complaint is that the magistrate didn’t even see me once and sent me to prison. In the days that followed, I was admitted to the hospital, where they chained me to the bed. When I asked why, they said it was procedural. Due to the stones, it was difficult and painful for me to even urinate. Only after I wrote to the court was I taken for treatment.

Sori was ultimately referred to the NRS Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata, where stones were removed from her vagina and rectum. But her torture and humiliation in the prison continued. In April 2013, a group of human rights organizations wrote to the Chhattisgarh chief minister, demanding the end of ill treatment of Soni Sori and other inmates in Jagdalpur, the central jail. They said Sori was being subjected to a psychiatric evaluation to declare her mentally unsound and create doubts over the veracity of her complaints of sexual torture.

PS: How long were you in prison and what is it like for the women inmates inside jail?

SS: I spent two and a half years in all, and spent time in four jails [Tihar, Raipur, Jagadalpur, and Kolkata]. The plight of girls and women is deplorable inside the Chhattisgarh jail. There is an urgent need for proper health care and sanitation. During their menstruation, women inmates are not given any sanitary pads. They have just one piece of cloth, which they wash and reuse as a pad. At times, due to the unavailability of pads and clean cloth, many even have blood trickling down their knees. It is extremely humiliating. Due to such unhygienic conditions, most women suffer from vaginal discharge, problems like “safed paani” [vaginal discharge] and foul-smelling urine. Women keep waiting to visit a doctor, but they are only taken after a very long wait.

The way women inmates are treated is inhuman. They are themselves made to clean the toilets and if anyone complains, the cops beat her up and put her in an isolated cell. No woman is allowed to keep more than one sari. If families send them more, the cops burn the extra sari. They are made to do hard labor but given a poor diet. If a mother dares to ask for more for her crying child, she is beaten up.

PS: Are the inmates also sexually abused by the police?

SS: The inmates are mentally tortured and harassed. A naked drill is a common thing. I was tired of being asked to strip again and again and again. They would strip me and accuse me of being a Maoist. … They would then humiliate me by inspecting my breasts with their batons and forcing me to spread my legs. It’s a mental torture. Not just me, but they do this to other women inmates as well. There are many minor girls as well inside, but they are falsely recorded as majors in the files. Many 13- to 14-year-old girls are brought in and accused of being Naxals.

According to Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetana Ashram, an organization working for tribal people in Chhattisgarh, grave human rights violations are taking place in the prisons of Chhattisgarh. Himanshu has been fighting for justice for Sori. He says that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to all the prisons across the world to carry out human right audits, but has been denied access to Chhattisgarh prisons. The state has been seen as the epicenter of Maoist conflict for a long time.

In February, after almost two and a half years in jail, Sori was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court of India. She is free to go anywhere but has to report to the nearest police station every Monday, regardless of the location. Sori now wants to work from Chhattisgarh, along with a human rights lawyer, to help other women who have been falsely accused and are languishing in prisons. According to the National Crime Records Bureau report of 2011, Chhattisgarh was one of the states that reported the highest number of female convicts (242) in its central jails. The women’s prisons here are overcrowded, with almost 150 percent occupancy. But along with this, Sori’s priority is also her children—her two daughters and one son.

PS: Now that you are out on bail, do you worry about separation from your family again?

SS: My children refuse to let go of me at all. They say this year they will stay with me since they don’t know when I might be taken to jail again. Every other day, jeeps packed with cops come to my house and question my children at gunpoint, but my children are strong and aren’t scared. My children say, “Let the police come, we can handle them.” Everything that they have been through has made my children strong.

When I was in jail, my husband passed away. I wasn’t even allowed to come for his last rites. I appealed to the court to let me go home to see him for one last time, but they didn’t permit me. One week later, they said I could go and visit home. I refused, saying it was too late.

During India’s recent general elections, Sori ran from her region. She says her decision to join politics is so she can challenge and change the system that treats women mercilessly. She remembers how the jail officials mocked her, saying that once she was out, her spirit would die. She says joining politics is an answer to all those people who challenged her.

Sori lost the election by a huge margin.

PS: You entered politics—are you disappointed that you lost?

SS: Not at all. I believe I have won, and my fight has just started. My fight was not to occupy the chair, but to get the support of my people. Today, there are many who will come and stand by me. The rulers always rule from their chair. I am fortunate that I will get to work at the grassroots level. My politics is not about ruling, but about fighting for the rights of my people.

PS: Is it difficult to stay motivated and focused on your mission?

SS: There are days when my children have nothing to eat. I don’t have a job today while Ankit Garg, who has been accused of brutalizing me, has been awarded with the president’s Police Medal of Gallantry. But it’s my children who give me the courage to fight. They are all I have today. My fight is not about caste or religion but about the rights of all women.

I know there are many who are waiting for me to die for this fight to end, but I want to tell them that if Soni Sori dies the fight will not end. There will be a hundred more Soni Soris who will emerge. Can they drown the fight for justice for women? Can they kill each one of us? In the end, victory will be ours.


A Delhi street where sex workers are forgotten

This story was first published in Women Under Siege Project

— April 22, 2014

With painted faces and shiny clothes, almost every day of their lives these women are forced to sell themselves for sex. Their work and lives are at the bottom of everyone’s concern, but they are still tied to Garstin Bastion Road—commonly known as GB Road—Delhi’s biggest red light area, which lies at the center of a busy commercial corner of the capital.

Estimated by local NGOs at almost 4,000 in number, women live here in 100 kothas, or brothel centers. The dilapidated buildings, dark and gloomy stairways with paint peeling off the walls, and their blank eyes tell a story of neglect and exploitation. Despite efforts by some NGOs to intervene, it’s an exploitation that has continued almost unabated for hundreds of years. It has rarely featured on the government’s agenda. But now, with India’s general elections under way and political parties making big promises to most citizens, this community of sex workers carrying on at the margin of margins is seeking yet again to be heard.

Tasleen Begum cast her vote a few weeks ago but says she’s certain it will not bring about any change. This 45-year-old’s kotha on the third floor of the building resembles a family living room. In that room are her four sons, aged between 5 and 17, studying, playing, and watching TV, insulated from the harsh reality of prostitution. As if they have internalized this as part of their existence. Two slightly younger women also wait for customers in her kotha.

As an old and a physically disabled man comes in, Tasleen leaves her sons and walks with him into a sort of cabin made of cardboard adjoining the room. It is supposed to provide the semblance of privacy. The walls are hardly soundproof and there is just enough space to fit a bed. Pasted on the green walls of the cabin are posters of Bollywood film stars.

About 15 minutes later, Tasleen walks out and sits down next to me. Her children still carry on with their work. She points to the amputated leg of her client and says, “We can’t choose our customers anymore. If we are lucky, we get one customer a day and with no choice we have to give in to all their demands. Some of them want sex without condoms. If I say no, I’ll lose the only 150 rupees (US$2.50) of the day.”

Would legalization offer more rights?

The difficult lives of prostitutes here has given rise to a stronger demand for the complete legalization of prostitution in India. The new law, Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, passed after the anti-rape protests in Delhi last year, has succeeded in criminalizing the traffickers and decriminalizing the women, but the old law—called the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, or ITPA, is still on the books. ITPA criminalizes activities like soliciting sex, pimping, or running brothels. It also says that a client is guilty of consorting with prostitutes and can be charged if he engages in sexual acts with a sex worker within 200 yards of a public place or “notified area.” Taking advantage of this law, the clients are now being harassed and looted by a group of mafia pimps, says a man named Aslam—who occupies an unusual position in the world of prostitution.

Aslam is a pimp but he is also associated with an NGO that is fighting for the rights of the sex workers. He says that before the year 2000 there was a free-flowing line of customers in each of the 100 kothas. But now with a gang of pimps functioning allegedly hand-in-glove with the police, only 30 of the kothas are flourishing, while others are on the verge of shutting down. Money is split between different stakeholders as these women are forced to sell themselves for sex. He believes the livelihood of many sex workers whose families are dependent on their earnings could be saved if legal recognition is given to their work and if they are included under the country’s labor laws.

But Sunitha Krishnan, a women’s rights activist who runs Prajwala, one of the largest anti-trafficking NGOs in India, thinks differently. Krishnan thinks that legalizing prostitution is equal to legitimizing slavery.

“Prostitution per se is an exploitative industry with a nexus of brokers, brothel keepers, pimps, traffickers, and without the active support from enforcement mechanism they cannot sustain,” Krishnan says. “For a woman in prostitution living in this exploitative world, the first near-irreversible damage that she is subjected to is that to survive, she starts normalizing the experience of being exploited. It is this normalization that makes women become spokespersons of these exploiters to demand for legalization.”

Between these demands and debates are the sex workers. “Provide individual working licenses to sex workers” was the first demand in a charter handed over to the Election Commission last month on behalf of the women of GB Road by Bharatiya Patita Uddhar Sabha (BPUS), an NGO working with them for more than three decades. Founder Khairati Lai Bhola says that apart from this, they have also demanded special educational centers and day care for children, pension for old sex workers, and, most important, a health card that would give the women the right to use medical facilities at a government hospital. (While not expressly forbidden from using hospitals, prostitutes are often ignored and left untreated.)

Rabia is 65 years old, has lived for more than four decades on GB road, and has no family of her own. She recounts how a year ago she fell very ill and had constant vaginal bleeding. When she was rushed to the nearby government hospital called Girdharilal Maternity Hospital, she says, they refused to treat her.

“They called me a randi [whore] and refused to touch me, saying I was dirty,” says Rabia. “Even though it was an emergency, I was asked to come back the next day and queue up outside.” She was ultimately taken to a private hospital where she spent every bit of her savings. Rabia breaks down as she says the least that can be done for them is to give them medical facilities.

Dressed in a yellow chiffon sari, with golden eye shadow lining her blue eyes, Rani lives in one of the 30 odd kothas that are doing well. Yet she too has lost confidence in these elections.

“I have voted but I have no hope from any government,” she says. “None of the leaders even came to meet us while campaigning.”

Showing her room, furnished with a personal fridge and a flat-screen TV, she says she spends 8,000 rupees per month (US$130) on just makeup. But behind a confident exterior lies the story of her life, carefully hidden from public view. She crumbles slightly when I ask her the disturbing question, How did she get here? Not wanting to reveal much, Rani says it’s her destiny and that each girl hopes for a family someday but that many are cheated and duped. As I speak to her, I spot many minor girls getting ready for the evening. It’s 6 p.m. and the entrance to this kotha is full of customers eagerly waiting outside. This is in stark contrast to Tasleen’s kotha, where they arrive through the day. And, according to BPUS, it is these flourishing kothas that indulge in trafficking and selling of minor girls.

The girls I meet are mostly from Nepal and West Bengal—some are as young as 13. The painted faces, pushup bras, and flimsy tops revealing their cleavage make them look much older than they really are.

“Kotha numbers 56 and 57 are filled with minor girls,” says Pallabi Gosh, a research and intervention officer with Shakti Vahini, an NGO that has been working in GB Road for 10 years, rescuing minors and reuniting them with their families. “In all, there will be almost 2,000 forced sex workers in GB Road, with 75 percent of them minors between 13 to 14 years of age.”

Gosh has conducted at least 100 rescues in the past two years. “Every raid and every rescue is a huge effort,” he says. “It involves months of information gathering, coordinating with the police and the girl’s family. And yet at times we fail. You cannot even imagine the tunnels that have been created inside these brothels to hide the girls during the raid.”

Every raid isn’t successful, however. The NGOs say the police have to be taken into their confidence to make this work, but they accuse them of leaking information to the pimps and brothel owners before a raid. The business of prostitution is rumored to thrive because of a profitable nexus between the police and brothel owner.

Shahnaz, 18
“I was 17 years old when my boyfriend brought me to Delhi from Kolkata, promising to marry me. Instead he sold me to a madam at GB Road. I don’t know how much the deal was fixed for but when I refused to sell my body, madam, along with five other women, beat me up and said that they have paid lots of money for me. Every day I was forced to take at least 16 to 17 clients. Each one would pay 150 rupees (US$2) directly to my madam. I would get only 20 rupees (less than half a dollar) out of that. It didn’t matter if I was menstruating or unwell, I was forced to take customers. The men would ravage every inch of my body but I never let anyone kiss me. They would take off the condom at the last minute so I couldn’t even revolt. Most of them would abuse me, call me names during sexual intercourse. I have never in my life heard such abuses. The five months I was there was like hell for me. I was finally rescued by an NGO. Now I’m back home in West Bengal but everyone in my neighburhood calls me a whore…I just put my head down and walk away. The NGO representative gave me 1,500 rupees (US$25) once but I’ve got nothing apart from that. What I really want is a job to support myself. Can the government help me? “

Mira, 20
“My stepmother sold me in a kotha when I was just 13 years old. We were very poor and she told my father that she will get me a job in Delhi. We travelled by train from Kadappa in Andhra Pradesh to Delhi. I begged her not to leave me but she didn’t listen. For four years I was forced into prostitution. There were many other girls my age who were there without their will. We were confined within the four walls of the kotha and would never be allowed to step outside. One of my regular customers fell in love with me. When I told him my story, he along with the police and an NGO rescued me. Today I am happily married to him and have a 9-month old daughter. I know not everyone gets lucky like me. I often think about my friends still imprisoned there. It is like a jail.”

What does the future hold?

Very few girls are lucky enough to escape from the brothels of GB road. The few who are rescued find it almost impossible to survive outside. Aslam’s friend, another pimp, tells me: “Raids and rescues disturb the equilibrium of GB road.” He accuses the NGOs working to rescue the girls of doing so only to get funded.

“These NGOs have ruined our business; they also catch women who are willingly in this business,” he says. “As soon as the police are paid, the willing girls are sent back to GB Road from the home. Meanwhile, the NGOs show statistics of rescued girls.”

The man explains that he believes it’s no better for the girls who were forced into prostitution and “rescued,” he says, “After rescuing her, does the NGO give her any other job? Or does the government have any rehabilitation program for her? Seeing no way out, she mostly comes back to GB Road—this time willingly.”

This country will see a new government in a few more weeks but it’s not at all clear that these girls and women will see any improvement to their lives. Their requests for basic and essential needs such as being given health cards for medical care at government hospitals has been pending for a long time with the health ministry. Will the new government address these critical issues?

Tasleen Begum shakes her head in denial. She says that for now she only trusts her sons. Eleven-year-old Kabir looks up at her and says, “I’ll become an architect and take you far, far away from all of this—to Paris, to the real city of love.”

(All of the women’s names have been changed to protect their identity.)

Does Piku’s Bhadralok Culture Endorse A Classist India?

This was originally published on The Huffington Post

– May 28, 2005

“Yes, I’m a Bengali Sur, not a Punjabi Suri or even a Sood” – That’s my rehearsed response to the many Bengalis who repeatedly question my Bengali roots and most of them in disbelief have looked at me surreptitiously, as though gauging my pedigree by my looks and then dissatisfied asked me again, “Are you sure both your parents are Bengalis?”

Bhashkor Banerjee’s (Amitabh Bachchan’s) repeated reference to being a Bengali in Piku and Rana Chaudhary (Irrfan Khan) being asked if he was a Bengali ‘Chaudhury’ captured this aspect of the perceived superiority of the Bengali bhadralok accurately. And while I loved Shoojit Sircar’s frames that captured the upper middle class life aptly, be it C R Park in Delhi or in north Kolkata, what also struck me was how Piku justified India’s deep-rooted classism through it’s characters and dialogues.

“He is the owner Baba,” Deepika introducing Irrfan Khan to Amitabh Bachchan as the owner of a cab-renting agency and not a taxi driver himself, seemed like a justification for Deepika who plays an educated architect, to fall in love with Irrfan. I’ve lost count of the number of times the viewers are told in one way or the other that Irrfan Khan was not just a taxi driver but an educated guy who lost his engineering job abroad and now runs a taxi service. What was the director scared of?

There is more than one instance when the bhadralokness of Bhashkor meanders from being a sophisticated Bengali to a classist Bengali in Piku. The way he shouts at his domestic help when she complains about his intrusive behaviour to Deepika or how he makes his caretaker, Budhan from a West Bengal village do everything for him – even cleaning and sanitizing his portable shit pot. And well, if this can be overlooked as nursing and caring for the elderly, Sircar gives a classist shade to his younger characters as well. The Chaudhary taxi agency owner (Irrfan) refuses to drive when the Banerjees’ domestic help Budhan sits next to him on the passenger seat. He also pleads with Piku (Deepika Padukone) to let him sleep in the hotel room with her and his father as there isn’t any other room available. His argument being – “I’m not a driver and can’t sleep in the car. I’m the owner.” Yes Shoojit, we get the point that Irrfan is the owner but even if he wasn’t would it really matter to the story or the viewer?

Otherwise a bold film, appreciated by many for openly talking about a woman’s choices in life and her sexual needs, Piku according to me plays extremely safe when it comes to challenging the classist undertones in our society.

Films draw from real life and perhaps Piku has successfully reflected the existing post-colonial hang-ups of bhadrolok, sahib and memsahib culture. But instead of a critical representation, it has embraced them.

Silent slaves: Stories of human trafficking in India

The story was first published in Women Under Siege Project.
— December 30, 2013

In a six-bed women’s ward in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital lies a frail 15-year-old girl. Her face and head are bandaged, leaving visible only a bruised blue-black eye and swollen lips. Burn marks and scabs extend down her neck to her whole body, and a disfigured ear clings on to her face like a piece of mangled flesh. A strange stench surrounds her. The nurse who comes to check on her explains the smell: A wound on the girl’s skull is rotting and has filled with maggots.

The girl tries to speak. In a muffled voice, she says: “My employer would beat me every day with a broom and a stool. Many times she would put a hot pan on my body and burn my skin. That’s how the skin on my skull started peeling out as she repeatedly burned the same spot.”

Somehow the horrific brutality inflicted on this teenager is not an isolated case. Thousands of girls are trafficked every year from remote villages to large cities and sold as domestic workers. Many are abused or sexually exploited.

Extreme poverty, lack of education and employment, and poor implementation of the government’s minimum wage system in rural India make girls more vulnerable to being trafficked. The 2013 Global Slavery Index, published by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, an organization that works to end modern slavery, found that almost half of the 30 million “modern slaves” in the world are from India.

But how does such slavery thrive, let alone exist in the 21st century? Over a few months in 2013, I traveled with a camera crew and conducted several interviews on the trafficking of girls in India. The accounts below are based on my findings.

Selling humans

In the western part of India’s capital city, New Delhi, more than 5,000 domestic worker placement agencies operate out of a nondescript neighborhood called Shakurpur Basti. For years, the agencies have flourished by indulging in the business of trafficking minor girls and selling them as domestic slaves in the cities. To expose this racket of trafficking and to uncover their modus operandi, we waited for days with a hidden camera, posing as a family interested in employing a girl.

What we found was shocking.

The agencies liaise with natives of remote villages, mostly from the eastern part of India, who, as “local agents,” carry out the first step in the trafficking process. The agents identify underage girls from extremely poor families and lure them to the city with the promise of a good job. Once the girls are in the city, the agents sell them for about US$120 each to a domestic worker placement agency. The agency then re-sells her to a family as domestic labor, charging between US$600 and US$700.

The girls are made to work 14 to 16 hours per day and do all of the household chores, from cooking and cleaning to baby-sitting. They are paid almost nothing. Often their monthly wage is paid to the agencies—not to them.

Most of the girls get trapped in this vicious cycle forever. Unaware and often illiterate, they have little knowledge of their rights and no clue of how to return home. The traffickers and agencies make the most of their vulnerability and, for years, move them from one household to another. Many are sexually exploited.

Three girls

1. Sixteen-year-old Manju told me how she was trafficked to Delhi when she was just 12.

Manju’s parents—daily wage laborers with five children—agreed to send the teenager to the city after a local agent told them she could get a good job there. But instead, Manju said, she was taken to be sold to a much older man.

The deal—50,000 Indian rupees (US$800)—failed, because the agent demanded more money. That night, the agent raped Manju, angry that he had spent money traveling with her. He cursed her and blamed her for the failed deal.

The next morning, Manju said, the agent sold her as a domestic worker for about 35,000 rupees (US$560) to a New Delhi household. After 11 months, she asked the agent to send her home. Instead, he locked her in an office and raped her again, she said.

Almost a year and a half later, Manju was rescued by a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement). She is now fighting a legal battle to get the agent convicted for rape and trafficking.

2. Twenty-one-year-old Vinita had lost all hope of ever seeing her family again. Trafficked from a tea garden in northeast India, she was sold as a bride to a 50-year-old man for about 70,000 rupees (US$1,200). When a rescue team, made up of NGO workers and police, found her almost a year after she had been held captive, she broke down. Holding on to her sister tightly and crying, Vinita said that every attempt of hers to escape had failed, and that when she was caught she had been beaten mercilessly.

3. Sixteen-year-old Mausami was three months’ pregnant when she was rescued from her abusive employer’s house. She had been sexually abused and denied contact with anyone. She said that in return for her 14 to 16 hours of work every day, all she got was abuse.

A year later, back home with her family in her village of Lakhimpur in Assam, Mausami said she had lost the desire to live. She said she almost never left her house, fearful of what people would say about her. Hiding her face behind a veil, she said, “I feel very lonely and want to kill myself. I guess that’s the only way out of this misery.”

For these girls, recovering from the trauma of this horrific past is extremely difficult. Once back in their villages, the girls are ostracized and face silent discrimination. Bhuwan Ribhu, a Delhi lawyer who has helped rescue many girls, says that despite the girls being rescued after a huge struggle and a legal battle, with the lack of government policies to uphold their fundamental rights, they face the danger of being victimized once again.

It is at this stage that the desperate need for effective centers of counseling is underscored. It is the most basic step, necessary for the girls to restart their lives with dignity and strength. Yet there are few such resources.

No recognition, no progress

A 2013 report by the Geneva-based International Labour Organization found that the number of domestic workers in India ranges from 2.5 million to 90 million. And despite being the largest workforce in the country, the workers are unrecognized and unprotected by Indian law.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment has formulated a national policy, which is still awaiting cabinet approval. The policy draft, which includes recommendations by the National Advisory Council, an advisory body set up to advise the prime minister, entitles domestic workers to benefits of defined normal hours of work with weekly rest, paid annual and sick leave, maternity benefits, and, most important, entitlement of minimum wages under the Minimum Wages Act of 1948.

But for now, there is no policy that entitles domestic workers to minimum wage or to benefits such as health insurance, pension, or leave from work. And as long as the law does not account for the domestic workers, they remain easy targets who are often exploited.

Yet all hope is not lost. The 15-year-old girl I met in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital is back in the eastern state of Jharkhand and studying in a state-aided residential school/rehabilitation facility. Forgetting the abuse and violence she suffered is not going to be easy for her, but with counseling, she is slowly recovering and daring to dream of a brighter future.

*The names of all the girls have been changed to protect their identity.

Uttarakhand floods: Reporting a tragedy

The original version was published on –

– Jul 08, 2013

There are two questions I have been asked often, after my return from a reporting assignment on the flash floods in Uttarakhand.
“How bad was the scale of destruction?”
“As a journalist did you not interfere with the rescue operations?”
People have asked this with a mix of curiosity, shock at the devastating tragedy and also sometimes with contempt towards the visual media.

18th June 2013, 11:30 am, Delhi

Arpit, my cameraperson and I left Delhi for Uttarakhand unclear about the magnitude of devastation. As we drove through Rishikesh towards the foothills of the Himalayas, the tragedy slowly unfolded itself. Massive destruction caused by the flash floods to lives and livelihoods was of a scale very few people had witnessed before. As we travelled I felt that it was almost at one brutal stroke, almost everything in the path of the river had been erased, wiped away. The tragedy was beyond our worst imagination.
For 3 days we drove through roads, broken and often washed away. Often we proceeded for a bit and halted again for hours because of landslides.
Ground report: Massive landslides in Tipri block roads
And then drove again through towns and villages wiped out by the raging Mandakini river. Overnight they had been turned into ghost towns.
Video: Uttarakhand survivor tells a tale of massive destruction
We wanted to reach out to the stranded pilgrims, report on their condition, focus on the relief work and also look at what many were ignoring, the story of the villagers and how they could make an attempt to restart their lives. It was essential for us to report these stories with sensitivity and at the same time with an urgency to ensure there was immediate help. It had to be a collaborative effort towards helping those who were affected by this tragedy. It was not an easy task and we knew it wouldn’t be. Our team of reporters were spread in different locations.
I reached Guptkashi on 21st June.
The main square of Guptkashi had transformed into a makeshift relief camp with local traders tirelessly distributing free food and handing out medicines to the starving and ailing pilgrims who had been evacuated from the upper reaches of Kedarnath and of Gaurikund.
Guptkashi traders provide free food, shelter to those searching for their relatives
While we were at Guptkashi, news had come in about the rescue operations in Kedarnath. Apparently they were winding up. But thousands of pilgrims were still stranded between Rambada and Gaurikund. I needed to travel up to Gaurikund to meet those people, to bring forth their voices, their stories of survival and how with the help of the rescue teams they still continued to fight against all odds. But all roads leading to Gaurikund from Guptkashi had been washed away. The only way we could get there was the aerial route.

21st June, 5:30 pm, Chardham Helipad, Guptkashi

From the MI17 to the Chetaah to the ALH, a chopper was landing every two minutes at this helipad. The pilots were braving the rough weather and bringing in scores of injured, critical and frail pilgrims. The manner in which every single member of the rescue units was functioning, it displayed clockwork precision and a much needed urgency. The IAF pilots would land their helicopter for just a few minutes at the helipad before flying out into the mist and beyond the dark clouds to get more people. The aim was to evacuate as many as possible and as quickly. With every landing, NDRF and medical teams rushed the survivors, at times physically carrying the injured ones to the medical camp tents. I also noticed many people who ran aimlessly clutching on to photographs of their loved ones, showing them to as many survivors as possible. They also showed it to the rescue personnel, begging them to have a look and see if they could recall having seen their relatives somewhere. A few photographs were handed over to me by those looking for their loved ones requesting me to look for them if I reached Gaurikund. I wanted to get there but never at the cost of rescue operations and evacuations. The choppers that flew from Guptkashi to Gaurikund were usually empty and they carried pilgrims on the way back. So when Wing Commander Jitendra Umrao flying an ALH agreed to fly us one way–till Gaurikund, Arpit and I got in knowing that the possibility of an immediate return would be very difficult.

21st June, 6pm, Gaurikund

As the pilots manoeuvred the ALH through the narrow space between the mountains, the extent of the devastation caused by the deluge became clearer. The flash floods had almost ripped apart entire mountains, scattered boulders and debris over inhabited areas. It had knocked off houses like a pack of cards and had reduced entire villages into rubble.
As our helicopter descended, stirring up dust clouds from the ground, I could see- old and young, frail and hungry – men, women and children pushing through the maze of security, trying to reach the chopper, crying out to be taken first. Some being pushed aside, for their own safety by men in uniform, to avoid the rotors, others scrambling in, squatting and clinging onto any available inch of space inside the ALH.
As the chopper flew away and the blinding dust settled down, the helplessness of all those desperate to go back became clearer. Every individual waiting to go back in a chopper had a story of pain and loss. Almost every face had tears and trauma was written large on them. But somehow in all of this there was also a glimmer of hope. Hope about not just going back alone but also hope to find their loved ones possibly stranded somewhere, still breathing and hoping that they’d be rescued and united with their family.
We stood there with our cameras. Near and around us were least 300 people stranded for days on this mountain top. Many had lost everything to the raging river, never as turbulent as it was now. As we stood there, we were thinking how could one possibly even capture a bit of what was going through the minds of the people here, how could one put a mike forward and ask them to speak. We knew it would be impossible to get every detail the enormity of the tragedy was such. Just then an elderly lady walked up to us and said she wanted to speak to the camera. She had crossed Rambada and was on her way to Gaurikund when the cloudburst occurred on the 17th morning. Fighting the heavy downpour as it lashed the mountains, treading through the slippery and very difficult terrain she and her two daughters trekked up and huddled together to stay warm and alive till the rains stopped. The next few days they walked to find help. They walked through the devastation and roads that had dead bodies strewn on them. But with no food and no water, exhaustion kicked in and as they trekked through another treacherous climb, her 34-year old daughter lost her foot hold, slipped and fell deep into the endless space below the mountain. With a straight face she tells me how no one cried for her or mourned her death. No one even tried to find her. She says that the thought of her 7-year old grand-daughter in Indore waiting for her mother to return breaks her heart. The lid that had been kept on her days of pain and emotions finally comes off as she burst into tears.
As she spoke the last sortie of that day came in. Another 7-8 people could be evacuated. Who could go and who would have to stay back and spend another long night in these life-threatening conditions? The priority for the rescue team was clear – the sick and ailing followed by the old and frail, women and children and then young men. As the group of people rushed once again towards the landing chopper, an old man in his late 70’s sat quietly in the corner.
An ITBP personnel yelled out to him indicating him to come ahead to board the chopper. He shook his head, refusing to go and watched the chopper leave. I went up to him and asked him why he chose not to leave. His reply was calm and direct. The floods had separated him from his wife. After their darshan (offering) at the holy shrine inside the Kedarnath temple on the 16th of June, his wife had taken the paalki (palanquin) and moved ahead. Now he had no idea where she’d gone. After years of togetherness, this pilgrimage was a journey they had planned together and now how could he leave his soul mate behind? He said he’d wait for her till the last rescue team left. As our cameras rolled and I questioned him, he opened up more and at one point started crying. It was immensely sad but we thought it was essential for others to know his story. At the end of the interview, he held my hand and said “I have children your age; I hope they too will understand how I never ever wanted to leave their mother behind”.
As the deafening sound of the choppers died down and darkness once again engulfed Gauirkund, people started preparing for the long, cold night ahead. Roaming around with surgical masks (provided by rescue teams) to avoid the nauseating stench of the decomposing bodies, people slept on the helipad in hope of being the first ones to be evacuated the next morning. Some others walked in a single line, down the mountain, to the nearby police chowki. In the darkness, the chowki visible thanks to the rising moon was the makeshift distribution point for food. Pooris and pickle from the relief food packets were being distributed. Our team got one packet. Then with a team of four mountaineers, Avdesh Bhatt and his group, who were there at Gaurikund for voluntary rescue work, we found our way to a rundown lodge along the riverside. We opened the rooms. In complete darkness and silence a few of us settled for the night in a deserted dormitory, waking up at midnight to the sound of rain and thunder and the river flowing just a few metres away. Most of the people at Gaurikund had already suffered the wrath of the river and the fear was evident.

22nd June 2013, 6am, Gaurikund

At day break rescue operations resumed. Mr Jaideep Singh, the commanding officer of the NDRF team at Kedar valley proceeded by foot with a handful of team members towards Jungle Chatti. News had just come in of casualties and stranded pilgrims in that region. Also a massive landslide had blocked any movement out of that area. Meanwhile a new road route, as long as 7 kilometres, out of Gaurikund to Sonprayag, had just been opened up that day. The narrow road was only accessible by foot and the ITBP personals now started motivating and helping the young and fit to walk back and not wait for air evacuation. “Yeh bhi ek yatra hai…bhagwan ka naam lo aur chal do…kab tak yahan ruke raho ge?” (This too is a pilgrimage of sorts…take God’s name and get going) shouted a broad built, middle-aged ITBP personal with kind eyes. “Main bhi chalunga aapke saath, aapka haath pakadke nadi cross karunga.” (I will come along and help you cross the river). But for the stranded pilgrims, 6 days of exhaustion had led to frustration. In anger a woman who had come all the way from Rajasthan screamed at the ITBP jawan, “Once I get back to my village I’ll complaint in my thana about how you made us walk and if I don’t get you punished for this, I’ll change my name”. The ITBP personnel gently asked her to sit down and wait for the chopper instead. The entire atmosphere was emotionally charged and rescue work was certainly not easy. Almost everyone there had witnessed death from close quarters, had suffered loss, and somehow managed to survive.

22nd June 2013, 6 pm, Guptkashi

That evening back at the Guptkashi helipad the last of the rescue choppers were coming in. Most people had been evacuated from Gaurikund. Huddled in a group of people sitting on the ground I spotted the 70-year old man who’d waited for his wife. He had finally left Gaurikund. He spotted me from that distance, raised his hands and looked up to the sky.
(It will probably take many years to even come close to rebuilding lives and villages)