Monday, June 15, 2009

Cantt Commandment: Lucknow Cantt, more than Home

If it’s harder than usual to explain your exact address to the local pizza guy for the fifth time this year, if all landmarks in your ‘colony’ begin and end at MB Club, when questions like “And, where do we turn from MB Club?” or “How far exactly do you live from MB Club?” are almost always asked, you must certainly be living in Lucknow Cantt.

Residents of the green haven are used to being envied for the trees, clean air, walking plaza and other facilities in their part of Lucknow, and sometimes it can get embarrassing. “Cantt? So lucky yaar!” has been the usual response in college, university and then work. Sometimes one would almost immediately expect to be badgered for a treat at the famous (now closed, please!) momo-corner in the canteen. But apart from all the perks and the calm surroundings of the cantt, there is another older world with its own special character that exists in and around the Cantt.

The old Bazaars of the Lucknow Cantonment-- Topkhaana, Regiment Bazaar, Laal Kurti and Sadar bazaar still have living relics from an ancient British past. Eighty- three old Gore Nawab, a barber who operates under a yellow tarpaulin in Regiment Bazaar was christened after his exclusive services to British soldiers and young officers pre-independence. He laments the loss of his fresh faced, pink customers of yore and says he has fewer customers these days because, “the young boys want long hairstyles, with creams and puffs which I refuse to give”.

The little sweet shop run by Ganesh and Dinesh Gupta in the same bazaar was established in 1885, their most popular mithai was a milky barfi the British soldiers loved. Families such as those of Jangat Khan that left for Pakistan are still remembered as if it was only yesterday. Old rickshaw pullers such as Manvir who were just little boys then, remember the red cavalry coats of the British soldiers who walked these lanes. The same coats gave “Laal Kurti” its name. While“Topkhaana”was once a garrison for cannons.

The Chacha Book Sellers in Sadar Bazaar and some old tailoring stores with boards that were painted in the 1940s, continue to attract a regular stream of customers, like Chappan Bhog which is a stone’s throw away. Chacha, who sits chewing his paan at his counter has known some of his customers who are now post-graduates, doctors and engineers as little nursery going children. He is known to give a free pen or notebook every once in a while to needy students. Though sadly, old Kunj Bihari’s samosas are now forgotten while little stores such as Goel’s under the over bridge struggle against the burgeoning population and pollution around them.

While there are mysteries surrounding the many mazaars, the allegedly haunted bungalows there is also the joy of living so close to nature and amidst wilderness. The tiny wooded areas that were once home to blue bulls, partridges, wandering wolves and the like are still home to peacocks, hare, porcupines, numerous birds, snakes, civet cats and sometimes jackals.

But most of all, living in the cantt, you cannot help but wonder about the century old houses that were silent witnesses to a steady change of guard.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Belatal's Weavers

The daily rain that has filled the majestic lakes constructed by the Chandels in Mahoba does not fill Rekha Rani’s stomach or that of her family of six. They still eat a meal of dry chapattis and sometimes vegetables once a day. “We have not seen dal in three years”, says an embarrassed Rekha who has been unemployed like eight hundred other such families of weavers since the past five years in village Belatal in the interiors of Mahoba.

“The weavers of Belatal have no land, they have never had any occupation other than weaving khadi for the Gandhi Ashram that was shut down in 2001”, explains Abhishek Singh who’s NGO Arunoday Sansthan has helped the weaver-women form self help groups. “The Gandhi Asharam was reopened in 2005 after a long struggle and our petitioning to the boards in Lucknow and Mumbai, but it was shut down within nine months because the authorities claimed there was no market for the products”, says Abhishek.

This is ironic because tourist spot Khajuraho is only fifty kilometers from Mahoba. “We have heard they sell inferior quality cloth for as much as one hundred and sixty rupees a meter in Khajuraho shops”, says Manni Lal. The small gathering of women gasp in horror.

Every house in the village has a charkha or handloom to weave khaadi. Most charkhas are kept under little mud shelves made for pooja. The Belatal weavers are proud of their prowess in weaving and despite the gap between their last productions, they have maintained their looms and charkhas. “Such was the quality of their khadi that at an exhibition in Delhi, a local minister from Mahoba asked the organizers to show him the best khadi and on being shown Belatal khadi, he asked where it was from thinking it was from Rajasthan. He was shocked to learn that Belatal was a village in his own constituency Mahoba”, laughs Abhishek.

Unlike the other men of his village, Manni Lal chose not to migrate and has been fighting for the Ashram to be reopened since 2001. “Approximately five thousand families in eleven villages have been affected by the shutting down of this Asharam, only forty five families remain in Belatal”, claims Manni Lal who believes that if a project or a new opportunity for weaving is introduced in the area the migrants and their families will return.

Such migration has decreased in nearby Banda because of the national rural employment guarantee scheme, on being asked whether anyone in their village has benefited from the scheme Rekha Rani and Beti Bai bring out over one hundred and sixty job cards and place them before the gathering. Quietly, they flip open the pages of the cards, no sign of work. “It took us six months to get these cards, when we did get them the Pradhan gave us no work. He says there is none”, says an angry Beti Bai who has walked with other women to the block development officer’s house to demand work. Rekha Rani is the district head of the ‘Chingaari’ group of women and has been fighting for job cards since over six months for the group’s rights.

“Technically and in accordance with NREGA, the women should be getting sixty rupees a day if no employment is found for them within fifteen days of them demanding it but none of them have received this money”, adds Abhishek who has been helping the women write joint job applications for benefiting from the scheme. None of the women have been called to participate in the Bundelkhand special plantation drive either. “Four thousand saplings are being given to every gram panchayat to plant in the area, NREGA beneficiaries are supposed to be planting these trees yet the Pradhan says there is no employment for these women”, says another disheartened activist.

It begins to rain and the gathering disperses. Inside Rekha Rani’s house with its five foot high roof and damp interior, sits a loom which she keeps clean in the hope that one day, it might earn her just enough to feed her family two meals a day and maybe sometimes, a little dal. She hopes it might even bring her husband back from Surat. Manni Lal believes it will, so does Beti Bai.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

NREGA Campaign 2008

Intensive campaign to increase reach and effectiveness of

National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) launched

5th July 2008

(In the interim period between the end of the first phase of the PACS Programme and the start of the second phase (PACS Plus), the Management Consultants of the programme, in consultation with DFID-India, have launched an intensive campaign to increase the reach and effectiveness of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). The campaign, to be rolled out in a phased manner across the six PACS Programme states, will run for a period of seven months, from June to December 2008.

In Uttar Pradesh, the campaign seeks to touch 20 districts by empowering 140 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in central, eastern and Bundelkhand regions. Village awareness campaigns and village meetings will be conducted to gather testimonials of good and bad practices in the implementation of the scheme.

Over 350 testimonials of villagers who availed the scheme are expected to be collected from the state. “Written case studies with supporting photographs and video documentation of these individuals will be gathered and presented in district advocacy workshops before media and concerned officials for redressal,” said Poonam Mehta of Development Alternatives while explaining the features of the campaign.

A cluster level planning workshop for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) of Central Uttar Pradesh was conducted at ICCMRT Indranagar, to acquaint participating CSO heads with the details of this campaign. CSO heads were trained in conceptualizing village awareness campaigns, preparing reports and mobilizing the community through a series of group activities.

BK Bhagwat Assistant Commissioner in charge of NREGA cell UP government was present for the workshop. Answering questions about the scheme, he also advised organization heads that, “It is important to read both schedules of the scheme and stay updated with circulars which are published online at the state rural development portal”. Giving participants the links of the website portals and helpline numbers, he assured the organizations full support from the government.

The campaign processes will culminate in state-level workshops for policymakers and the media, with the participation of top officials from relevant departments such as rural development, panchayati raj, and women and child development.

Sandeep Majhi, PROACT, further added that, NREGS Campaign 2008 would focus on following issues-

  • Discriminatory practices against women, such as unequal employment opportunities, unequal wages, lack of Creche facilities, and inequitable workload.

  • Exclusion of dalits, tribals, women, disabled and other marginalised groups and

  • Improper and corrupt practices, such as fraud in wage payments, use of contractors, failure to create a shelf of works, etc.

It is expected that over 1740 villages in UP will be touched through the campaign.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Another Day outside the Lucknow GPO

The tik-tiking of keys is unmistakable. They sit close to a foot apart with yellowing little boards stating their area of expertise as either “Hindi” or “English”. On the pavement outside the General Post Office, sharing space with two barbers and one prosperous chai- wallah sit close to ten typists braving the local police, nagar nigam and sometimes, the weather.

Sitting cross-legged since 7:30 this morning is Kishan Kumar. His black Remington typewriter is as old as his profession, no less than thirty-three years. “This is a Remington 76, I bought it after I learnt how to type in the short course that was run by the Bhole Lal College in Wasiatganj”, he says while removing the cover to show well greased keys. “These letters tend to fade and so do the ones on my keys, but if you treat the typewriter gently it always cooperates!” he beams.

The cycle and ‘jhola’ standing by the wall right behind him are his constant companions. He travels from Gomtinagar to ‘his tree’ on the pavement with the forty kg typewriter daily. He points to a young man sitting with a shiny green typewriter adjacent to him, “That’s a Godrej typewriter. It weighs only a couple of kgs because it’s plastic!” But he isn’t keen on parting with his old Remington 76 for a lighter one. “We both have been in jail three times”, he laughs, remembering how the police and nagar nigam jailed him and his typewriter for encroachment. “But we don’t come in the way of the pedestrians and we help people write their letters and applications before they post them, we are not criminals!” he adds with sadness.

Pointing at the broad road Kishan says, “Earlier, there used to be a row of imli trees here and there was hardly any traffic. They cut the trees and expanded this road and now we have a pavement with these new trees.” He then cleans his spectacles and wipes the dust off his typewriter “I remember the old imli tree often…and there wasn’t so much dust too”, he says looking at the young tree behind him.

Carefully parking his rickshaw so it doesn’t affect Kishan’s business, Mohammad Islam says salaam to his typist friend. “Whatever he’s saying is true! There were many trees here earlier” and he crouches down before the Remington. He visits Kishan twice a day for a glass of tea before he richsaws around Lucknow, “I have been in Lucknow since I was 10. I am Lucknow’s and Lucknow is mine”, he laughs.

The old typist spends his day typing ‘complaints’ and other ‘letters’ for villagers. “Even though the computer has come to India, this is the villager’s computer!” he pats his Remington and continues, “ There are so many types of complaints these days, earlier it was only about the land now the villagers are also filing for divorce! But the format for writing a complaint has not changed much.”

Most of Kishan’s customers are illiterate and he often acts as a counselor to those who break into tears while relating their problems for him to type into formal grievances. Mohammad Islam is in awe of his friend, he has never needed Kishan’s expertise but knows he can always count on him. “I could have sat at the court too, but I like it here. I have been here for so many years and the court already has so many typists. Here I can get some peace of mind as well!” says Kishan whose sons don’t know typing but have their own little shops.

“Everyday on the footpath is an adventure for us, this morning the Governor was passing and we had to hide,” he muses, to which Islam laughs. Another day on the pavement outside the Lucknow GPO.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Lihaaf ki Baat

Of the many sights announcing the onset of an Indian winter, one that is particularly heartwarming is the annual lihaaf or razaai sunning. It is no easy task maintaining these five kilo warmers.

Prahlad, whose quilt shop in Sadar bazaar is over forty years old says, “It is advisable to have your razaai aired and the cotton beaten every year because germs collect inside cotton very easily. Cotton also has a tendency to clot and the razaai becomes lumpy making it less effective if it isn’t beaten”.

Most lihaafs have a history, wedding presents and ‘first’ razaais are stored by many loyals. “This maroon velvet one is what was given to me for my wedding”, smiles octogenarian Nirmal Kaur running her hand over the once rich maroon quilt. But she is no longer loyal to her sixty year old favourite lihaaf, she has taken to using her bright new Jaipuri razaai over a Chinese blanket this winter. “Well it’s softer and not as heavy as my lihaaf! Though this new arrangement isn’t quite as warm.” Young Rizwana and her mother in law Hamida are in sadar bazaar looking for soft yet sturdy cloth for Rizwana’s year old daughter’s first lihaaf. “I think this one with red flowers will suit your purpose”, says Prahlad as Hamida inspects the cloth carefully.

At his ‘cotton center’, customers usually arrive with bundles of old quilts while others come to order new quilts. “A kilo of cotton costs anywhere between sixty and eighty rupees whereas the fiber is just fifty rupees a kilo. Besides, fiber is washable”, explains Prahlad. A fiber lihaaf sounds appealing to Rizwana but Hamida insists on a good old cotton one. “At least it will last!” she says.

Prahlad had also designed a handmade catalogue of various stitching styles for quilts. “The more ornate, floral or circular sort is Bengali silai while the one with squares is dibbedar silai and then the barfi design is called kishti silai”, he explains. “The most popular is the Bengali silai but few people have the time to choose or pay as much now. They prefer simple and fast products!” laughs Prahlad. His workers live around sadar bazaar and some come to his center to work. “We keep them on a monthly salary and then there are commissions too. They have only three months of work though”, he says.

Outside the cotton center sit Nazneen and Prem who are veterans of this winter tradition, they stuff close to four quilts a day quickly stitching double and single sized cotton and more recently “fiber” quilts. “It is easier to stitch through the fiber quilts, but it’s not the same thing”, says Nazneen as she calls out to the chotu in the tiny paan shop a couple of feet away.

“We used to put pieces of capoor into the shaneel razaais in the olden days. It used to help in keeping the germs out and giving a fresh scent too”, remembers Prem threading her finger sized needle with a thick brown thread. “Some of our old customers still ask us to put ittar and capoor into their lihaafs while we stuff them with cotton”, adds Nazneen who is smoothing out the cotton in the quilt with a short cane stick.

On asking both how long they’ve been making quilts since, both say “Umar beet gayi” and smile. Their own lihaafs are old and precious, “Mine has cotton in it, very very old cotton” says Prem. “Cotton is too expensive today, besides it takes four to five kilos of cotton to make a good lihaaf but you need at least six kilos or more of fiber for a lihaaf”, mutters Nazneen. She learnt the art from her mother and father who used to make quilts at home, her children don’t know how to stitch.

“The lihaafs that used to be made in Maulviganj were famous but their quality went down and now the shopkeepers only sell mattresses etc”, says Prahlad who is helping Baba, his old assistant weigh cotton. “This comes from Ganganagar, Harayana and Punjab and that comes from China”, he says pointing at the fiber. In place of the old wooden contraption which Prahlad calls a “behna” that used to beat cotton for as few as three quilts, sits a metal machine that beats out cotton worth over twenty. And this cotton beating green metal machine is made in India.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

From Narhara

Aslam had visited the primary school he lived next door to in the past ten years only once, to enroll his sons and daughter there. But that was till he became a member of the school management committee in his village, Narhara. “I come to the school for an hour everyday and I also see to it that the children don’t loiter about outside during class hours!” says Aslam, who presses oil for a living. He, Nathulal, Munni Devi and others were selected by the village to be part of this new committee of parents and guardians that intend to provide voluntary assistance to their local primary school.

Bringing the Pradhan, teachers, parents and guardians together was not easy. It involved no less than three to four meetings before a final ‘big meeting’. Anil, who is a twenty five year old post graduate from a village close by has been motivating the locals to participate in school management. “Many villagers were skeptical when I met them first. They used to say we have had enough of these programs and would turn away but we managed to convince them eventually!” he says with a grin.

Supporting Anil in his endeavours have been an equally young post graduate Anuj and veteran development worker Dinesh of Sarvodaya Asharam. For the past three months, they have been camping in a school in Sitapur, directing nine other motivators like Anil to form school management committees in villages around the area. “We are implementing a project that aims to involve local villagers in managing primary schools,” explains Anuj who with his team has worked on every Sunday and festival in the past few months. “We have only till December to see the results!” adds Dinesh.

The results are encouraging, not only are the children benefiting from the extra attention being paid but the committee members too, have found new confidence and awareness because of their new responsibilities.

Munnidevi is a widow with two children who study in the primary school. She has never participated in anything ‘important’ earlier and is one of the three female members in the group of seven. “I come and clean the classes every other day”, she quips. Mrs. Verma, the young primary school teacher looks after five different classes with approximately fifty children each and is assisted the school Shiksha Mitr. “It is a big help now that the parents are coming to school and volunteering to help in cleaning the classes or to cook the midday meal. Earlier, my voice used to go hoarse screaming at children and supervising the cooking!” she says.

Nathulal, the president of the committee talks about their progress, “We have had four meetings till now and have collected five hundred and ninety rupees from villagers as well. We have also requested the pradhan to build a toilet for the school as well”. Local contributions range from rupees ten to rupees fifty, two pink chart hang from the primary school walls, one states the aims of the committee and the other is a list of donors. Anuj points at the area in front of the school, “These furrows in the earth have been made by the members of the committee so that the children stand in straight lines during PT and their morning assembly. These are small innovations made by the locals”, he smiles.

The school management committees elsewhere have been actively involved in maintaining the school property by peeling weeds and wild grass, cleaning school toilets and repairing doors. “It has been observed that teachers are suddenly becoming more active because of the parents involvement and school visits. But it is explained, during the training period to the committee members that they are not to fight or argue, all disputes are to be settled amicably”, says Dinesh. The members understand this and ask the head master or mistress of each school in what way they can be of assistance before they begin work.

Before one leaves the little primary school at Narhara, Aslam, Nathulal and Munnidevi walk across to the small patch of land behind the school and Nathulal says, “We intend to clean this area and cultivate green vegetables here so that the children can eat an extra sabzi with their midday meal. They are all our children after all”.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Buddh Bazaar

It is not unusual to find yourself helplessly stranded in the middle of Mahanagar on a Wednesday afternoon or evening. You will either be wondering aloud why you forgot it’s Buddh Bazaar today or you will be sitting on your haunches haggling with the chinhat tea-cup and saucer selling man who looks suitably surprised when you show him the chip on his twelve rupees a dozen china cups which are glazed a caramel brown.

“We don’t come every week,” says an indignant young Samiyah from Indranagar but her mother Arshia is a Buddh Bazaar veteran. “You have to know how to deal with these shopkeepers, they are very clever. The minute you like something they multiply the price by five!” says the mother, trudging off to buy Samiyah a denim jacket.

The long stretch of the bazaar seems to get longer by the week. Traffic is closed on one of the roads where potters and bangle sellers vie for space. It is on one of these roads Bihari the tea seller shares quick words with his customers, a lump of tobacco strategically tucked in a corner of his mouth. “I only sell to the shopkeepers!” announces the most popular young man at the bazaar. He flits about in all four directions with his brass tea carrier and basket of kulads, stopping only to offer a free kulad to an occasional Hawaldar sahib.

While the sweater, jacket, purse and shoe sellers have their shops at the best spots, the cloth bag and plastic flower sellers are pushed onto the dividers. Arjun and his wife Mamta have been selling bright plastic flowers from the divider for over seven years, “Yeh toh 12 maah ka product hai,” quips Arjun who sports a trendy Lee cap he bought at the bazaar while Mamta busies herself arranging the fluorescent, orange, red, pink and yellow bouquets. “We used to sell Delhi-flowers first, now we sell China-flowers. See the China flowers have more petals and the combinations are brighter”, beams Arjun who makes an average of seven hundred rupees on a good Buddh market day.

But one gets used to hearing about Chinese products here. Next to Arjun and Mamta is the omniscient toy seller, he has a new toy this week. A hairy brown mouse with wheels and a chaabi. “This is from Cheen, the mice I used to sell earlier were plastic ones for ten rupees each. This one is for seven rupees and it has hair”, he squeaks with delight. An on looking father immediately buys two.

Mohammad Idries has been selling sweaters at this bazaar for over twenty five years. “This bazaar was nothing! There were only four other shops including Sharma babu’s and Khan’s. Even the quality wasn’t so fancy, now women and men want shiny clothes for daily wear too”, he yawns. Looking out of his makeshift shop he calls for Bihari, before he continues “I now get my sweaters from Ludhiana too.” On asking if anyone from the Buddh Bazaar has managed to set up a permanent shop he shakes his gray head and frowns, “Not enough profits!”

By the roadside you will find the occasional enterprising young man who will be hawking glucose bottles filled with seven colourful blue fry and one water weed for the flexible price of fifteen to thirty rupees for the same bottle. Or maybe you will meet the old woman who’s spectacles are tied behind her head in order to reduce the chances of them falling down while she polishes shoes she can barely see. Sitting by her father might be a little girl like Rampyari who is chiseling a sil-bhatta busily, her chin tucked between her knees as she sits on her haunches. Her father sells new green marble chaklas for making rotis, “One fifty rupees madam, new piece” he says in English.

And on another divider stands young Arvind Singh. He is selling bags which are hanging from the telephone pole and a quarter of the length of the divider’s entire fence. “I am a potter! I sell bags only during this season”, he says quickly and without provocation. “I also sell my products in Barabanki” he adds before telling one what he does for the rest of the week. “Well, on Wednesdays we are here in Mahanagar, Thursdays Aminabad, Fridays Barananki, Saturdays Sadar, Sundays Nakkhas and Mondays there is no bazaar while on Tuesdays we are in Alambagh!” He then resumes his calls for customers, his “Tees rupyaih ka ek” merging with the clamor of “Dus ke chaar”, “ Woolen bhi, garam bhi”, “Samosa, pakora, chai…”, “Ice cream” and others.