Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Recently I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Prakash Tyagi, a medical doctor and director of Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS), a rural empowerment organization based in the state of Rajasthan, India.  Dr. Tyagi was visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, courtesy of the International Development Exchange (IDEX).

The mission of GRAVIS, grounded in Gandhian philosophy, is to promote sustainable rural development via capacity building, community and women’s empowerment, social justice, and protecting the environment.  I am familiar with the work of GRAVIS, having written previously on how the organization empowers rural communities through employing traditional knowledge of taankas, a water storage system.

GRAVIS works in the Thar Desert in western Rajasthan.  It is the world’s most densely populated desert ecosystem, with 23 million people.  Life is tough, with unpredictable rainfall, environmental degradation, climatic extremes, resource scarcity, few health clinics, and oppressive social standards for women.  GRAVIS incorporates a holistic approach, focusing on water security, food security, health, and education, and reaches approximately 1 million people.

Dr. Tyagi talked about how GRAVIS works to overcome the difficulties facing women in the Thar Desert by making them equal partners.  They are guided by the idea of “sitting on one carpet”, meaning equal voice/equal rights for men and women.  Much of this work is done through Self-Help Groups, which aid women in life skills and economic self-reliance.  Projects include support for seed banks, micro-credit lending, and nutrition.

Overall, GRAVIS takes a life-cycle approach to meeting the needs of girls and mothers, and promotes leadership development, health education, maternal health, and girls education. Currently, the organization has set up 90 primary schools to help increase girl enrollment.

We discussed family planning, a sensitive issue in rural areas.  GRAVIS has put much effort toward prevention, capacity building, and the training of village health workers.  I asked Dr. Tyagi about the “mother-in-law” effect, as this particular family member has culturally had much influence on births in India (with a preference for grandsons). Though still an obstacle, Dr. Tyagi said they were slowly changing deep-rooted beliefs, especially by involving men in family planning, and by improving literacy.  GRAVIS states on their website that village health workers, who come from rural areas, have the trust of their respective communities, which enables them to overcome some of the village skepticism regarding modern medicine and health practices.

Another cultural barrier to overcome is that of child marriage, a still-too-common practice in Rajasthan, and one rooted in social poverty. Official government figures show the percentage of girls getting married before the age of eighteen is 68% in Rajasthan.  Dr. Tyagi said that their Self-Help Groups work in villages to change attitudes and beliefs. GRAVIS has been able to reduce rates of child marriage by empowering women, educating girls, and improving economic opportunities.

Lastly, our discussion touched upon overcoming desertification, overgrazing, erosion, and other environmental problems.  GRAVIS works with communities through locally-based organizations to create community forests and pastures.  The forests – called orans – are considered sacred, dedicated to a local god or goddess and protected by ancient laws in each community. According to the social entrepreneurial group Ashoka, the land is sacred because it provides villages with grazing land and pasture for livestock, produce and medicinal plants such as berries, roots and herbs, and also fuel, timber and water.  Traditionally, orans allowed for equal access of all people to resources.  GRAVIS is working with communities to protect more orans in the Thar Desert region.

The short time I spent with Dr. Tyagi gave me hope and inspiration that by taking a holistic, traditional, and empowerment-based approach to the critical issues facing not only Rajasthan, but also much of the world, we can create positive change.


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We hear a lot about consumption in the developed world, and rightly so.  As an American, I know that the majority of my fellow citizens and I consume an unsustainable amount of goods and resources.  This needs to change, as the planet cannot support a growing global population of American-level consumers.

But of course, as developing countries grow, prosper, and move into the middle-class, they want the things that we in the developed world want and have.  Cars, computers, smartphones, televisions, lattes and most everything else under the sun. It is a contentious issue, one that has stymied the global climate talks, amongst other things.  We can only hope that we soon find a path that we can all live with and still be content.

What does the situation in India look like?  People often associate India with poverty and rural villages, but that’s rapidly changing.  It is projected that by 2030, approximately half of India’s households are projected to be in the middle class.  That amounts to close to 600 million people.

India's Growing Middle Class


The outlook for India is that growing urbanization, a young working-age population, and higher income will result in increased spending, resulting in a consumption boom over the next two decades.  No wonder Wal-Mart is banging on India’s doors (it currently operates in India as a joint venture with an Indian conglomerate, but foreign investment rules could be on the verge of change).

I started this blog because I find India fascinating and believe that what takes place in that country not only affects the world but can provide a learning experience for us all.  How can we bring 400 million village people who lack electricity into the 21st century without creating huge amounts of carbon emissions?  Like China, India is heavily reliant on coal but is also moving ahead with renewable energy initiatives.  What happens when more and more Indians move to urban cities?  How will India balance growth, poverty, and the environment?  And what about tigers?

I follow and associate with groups that are doing amazing work in India.  These organizations, many focused on women (Navdanya, WEA, IDEX, GRAVIS), and others (SELCO, Husk Power Systems), give me hope that as Indians make progress they will also find a sustainable path to prosperity.  Technology will play a key role, but so will tapping into historical/ancestral knowledge and traditional best practices.

India has existed for a long time.  I’m willing to bet that there is a lot we can learn from the world’s biggest democracy.  At the very least, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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Following up on my last post that touched upon soap operas and lower fertility rates, I just saw that the Business Standard in India had an article/ad this summer on entertainment and population rise.

Idea 3G, an Indian cellular company, created a television ad with a brand ambassador, in this case, Abhishek Bachchan (a huge Bollywood star, who with his wife Aishwariya Rai-Bachachan are “more famous than Brad and Angelina”, according to Oprah).

In the ad, Abhishek explains to a friend that the root cause of the population crisis in India is the unavailability of entertainment options for people, especially during times of power shortages.  He mentions Idea 3G and its various applications such as Mobile TV, Gaming, Video Calling, and Social Networking  that “offer non-stop entertainment to help people stay connected and entertained.” You can watch the rather humorous ad posted on YouTube below (and no, you don’t really need to understand Hindi to get the ad!).

The last line (in English) refers to the first baby the Bachchan’s are expecting. “And your baby?”, Abhishek is asked, who replies, “before 3G.”

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photo credit: showmeindia.com

We need to hear more about the numerous heroes and heroines in our midst, along with successful grassroots projects, and less about partisan politics and the like.

This week I heard a presentation by Rajasvini Bhansali, or “Vini,” an amazing woman who heads up the International Development Exchange (IDEX) and is one of those people we should be hearing about.

IDEX works with local organizations to overcome poverty. Vini combines incredible intellect with warmth and an engaging personality and uses it for positive action.  I wish our media reported on more people like her.

Vini’s talk was called “India Shining” and it covered mainly positive initiatives on the ground in India.  One of her stories was about water and women in Rajasthan.  If you’ve ever been to that state, you know how dry it is.  It’s a beautiful but very arid region that is home to many rural and desert communities. According to IDEX, desert families spend upwards of 70% of their income on water.

Not surprisingly, water, and water management, is a huge issue.  This is especially so for women, who spend much of their time walking great distances to collect water for their families.  Often it is young girls tasked with this burden.  Fetching water is a priority that is put before school, so few girls are able to gain an education. As water becomes scarcer, the negative impact on women becomes greater.

GRAVIS, a local IDEX grantee with field offices in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, strives to create self-reliant villages.  One such initiative is helping implement a traditional way of harvesting and storing rain water to help Rajasthani communities.  Using taankas, or underground water storage tanks, GRAVIS helped 20 villages construct these tanks that resulted in vastly improved water security during times of drought.  At the same time, it eased the water burden on women.

photo credit: gravis.org.in

A taanka reportedly costs about $250, and the tanks capture, filter, and store rainwater normally collected from rooftops.  Each taanka holds 20,000 liters of water. Once a tank is filled, it can last a family for 5-6 months. Freed from the need to collect water, more girls are able to attend school.  A win-win for the family and community.

Vini talked about how the most durable solutions to poverty come from the ground up.  Not only that, but they come from resurrecting past, even ancient, traditions.  Technology can be a saving grace for our societies, but tapping into knowledge and nature could even be better.

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photo credit: cleantechnica.com

India, along with many other countries, is heavily reliant on coal. Up to 40 percent of India’s current CO2 emissions come from coal fired power stations. Last year alone India approved 173 coal fired power plants. There’s a lot of pressure on the Indian government and businesses to sustain the current level of approximately 9% economic growth, and coal is fueling a good part of this.  But for how long, and at what cost?  Aside from the environmental impacts alone, the price of coal in the global market has been skyrocketing.  And the Sierra Club reported today that the increasing costs are halting construction of a number of coal power plants.

Much of the coal lies underneath India’s dwindling forested and rural farm lands. And the domestic supply of coal isn’t enough; the country could soon end up importing up to 57% of its future coal supply (India currently imports coal from Australia, Indonesia and South Africa).  This could also have serious implications for the U.S., which is considering exporting coal from Wyoming via ports in the Pacific Northwest.

Indian states such as Orissa have paid a high price for mining.  Orissa is extremely poor and suffers from environmental degradation.  Communities there do not benefit economically from coal mining and are often displaced from their lands due to mining.  Andhra Pradesh is another state with high poverty levels that is investing in coal, and is considering building a whopping 63 coal powered plants.  Last month the UK Guardian reported that Andhra Pradesh plans to build a new fleet of coal-power stations that could make it one of the world’s top 20 emitters of carbon emissions.

Despite promises that the coal-generated electricity will benefit Andhra Pradesh, opponents say that the power will be exported to large cities and heavy industry, leaving the local communities to deal with toxic waste and pollution.

Yet there are signs of hope.  Many people and organizations are actively promoting renewable and  off-grid alternatives, especially for the over 400,000 Indians who lack access to reliable electricity.  Providing them with viable, renewable alternatives is the key for a sustainable future.  Small scale, decentralized clean energy will also deliver it to rural citizens quicker and cheaper.

It’s bad enough to continue relying on coal when it’s a domestic source; it’s even worse to have to import dirty fuels when other options abound.  Fortunately, innovators are up to the task, with Indian entrepreneurs coming up with creative and sustainable initiatives:

  • Creating mobile phone enabled “pay-as-you-go” solar home system (SHS) technology (Simpa Networks)
  • Using waste rice husks as fuel to produce off-grid renewable electricity for rural villages (Husk Power  Systems)
  • Installing over 115,000 solar lighting systems in rural households and creating a rural financing program to overcome financial obstacles (SELCO India)

Slowly, countries are beginning to realize it is time to move away from expensive coal and invest in renewable energy. Keep your eyes open for amazing entrepreneurial initiatives coming at us from all over the globe.

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The first time I went to India, back in 2000, I was on a steep learning curve to learn about seed saving, industrial agriculture, and genetically-engineered foods.  I was working at the International Forum on Globalization and organizing a trip for a handful of North American, European, and South American farmers, activists, and scientists to meet their counterparts in India.

What I remember best about the trip was visiting the organization Navdanya, located in the Himalayan foothills near the town of Dehra Dun.  Navdanya works with farmers to save seeds that have been used by Indian farmers for generations.  Seed saving is threatened by large corporations such as Monsanto and Cargill, and by global trade rules which they lobby intensively for (such as trade related intellectual property rights, or patents).  Once a seed is patented, then farmers, many of whom have been saving seeds all their lives, can no longer do so because they are violating patent rights.  Each year they must buy seeds to plant.

About a decade ago, neem, a tree endemic to South Asia, was part of a big patent battle in India.   It has many traditional uses, including medicinal, fuel, toothpaste, and even as a type of contraception. Neem has been used for thousands of years but in the 1990s a multinational company put a patent on neem.  An international coalition led a fight against W. R. Grace and the European Patent Office to overturn the patent, and eventually it was revoked. How can a company be allowed to engineer a native species and then force people to buy it when they have been harvesting and saving it for years?  Well, that’s a long story and another post.  Simply put, it’s the belief that man can do better than nature.

Along with seed saving Navdanya promotes biodiversity, organic farming, and farmers’ rights.  They also help build community seed banks and train farmers and others in food sovereignty and creates awareness of indigenous knowledge and practices.

Now that I cook Indian dishes, I can appreciate all the seeds and spices I saw at Navdanya’s farm.  Cardamon, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek and many other things I couldn’t recognize and never knew existed. It was simply amazing, as was the food they cooked up for us – all fresh and homemade.  None of this processed stuff we call food.

I would love to go back and visit with the Navdanya staff and farmers, now that I understand so much more about local agriculture, Indian food, and holistic living.  But I can certainly appreciate what I have here, especially in bountiful California. Support local, organic agriculture and you’ll live and eat well.  Someday we’ll overcome corporate rules that really don’t benefit anyone and threaten our environment and communities.   In India, farmers are fighting to protect their livelihoods, as are farmers here in the U.S.  It’s a cliché, but buying local and acting global makes a big difference in so many ways.  It tastes and feels good too.

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photo credit: Oxfam.org.uk

Secretary Hillary Clinton and her entourage have come and gone from India, where they discussed many important and pressing issues.  However, women’s issues were not among them.  Of course you can’t cover everything in a short visit, yet I am a little surprised that it didn’t even make the agenda, given Clinton’s strong support of these issues at the State Department (creating an Office of Global Women’s Issues).  Clinton has put a lot of her force behind women rights, saying “The United States must be an unequivocal and unwavering voice in support of women’s rights in every country on every continent.”

Women in India are impacted by a host of problems, from poverty to HIV/AIDS to ingrained preference for sons.  The maternal mortality rate in India is shockingly high, at 254 per 100,000 live births, though there has been some improvement in the last few years. I wish Clinton would have focused attention on maternal health; according to UNICEF, worldwide over 500,000 women die of pregnancy related causes every year.  It is unconscionable that this many women are dying in childbirth.  A little attention and investment in healthcare and women’s rights would make a world of difference.

When I was in India in 2009, I met with women and men working to improve the maternal health of Indian women and increase awareness of family planning.  Education and access to health centers, be it public or private, are key.  A high percentage of rural women do not have close or easy access to clinics and healthcare providers, nor do they receive adequate pre (and post) natal care.  Furthermore, they don’t receive much education on sexual and reproductive health, especially available contraceptive options for themselves and their families.  It is crucial that both partners be educated and involved in making decisions and understand the risks and benefits.

Population Services International is one of many groups doing excellent work on women’s health.  One tactic they use in educating people is street theater, where actors talk about the effects of having a large family vs. small and act out as couples having a discussion of family planning. The play I saw was on IUDs – what it is, why couples might want to use it.  During and after the street theater, outreach workers hand out pamphlets with information.  It also doesn’t hurt to have international celebrities on your side — to encourage condom usage PSI has Justin Timberlake marketing one of their Masti condom brand.

I know, we can barely get our Congress to do the right thing on energy efficient light bulbs, so why would they even care about the health of women in India.  That’s someone else’s problem if women in India are dying in childbirth.  This is an obvious statement, but it is about doing what is morally just.  Women should not be dying in childbirth anywhere in the world in the 21st century if it is at all preventable.

Hopefully Secretary Clinton’s next trip to India will make this and other issues directly affecting women a priority.

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