From Delhi’s railway platform to Buckingham Palace

Vicky Roy

 

By Sanjay Pandey

Vicky Roy still shudders when he remembers the day he ran away from his uncle’s home in Purulia, in West Bengal and ended up in New Delhi. Barely nine years old at the time, he jumped into a train and after travelling more than 20 hours, got off at the railway station in India’s capital, cold, tired and lost.

“I was also feeling hungry and extremely scared,” says Vicky, today relaxing in his modest rented flat in Delhi. The only dream he had at the time was to have a good life, see the world “and become a little famous” – like the stars in the Bollywood movies he had seen on the silver screen in the dilapidated theatres of his village. Now, 17 years later, the 26-year-old acclaimed photographer has achieved all this and more.

From eating out of bins and sleeping on pavements and railway platforms, to dining with royalty – he was invited for dinner with Prince Edward at London’s Buckingham Palace after being awarded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – and talking to heads at Google and Facebook, Vicky’s life is one that could rival the plot of one of the Bollywood movies he loved so much.

The photographer who has several honours – including being India’s sole representative at the prestigious Art of Photography Show 2011 in San Diego, US, and one of just seven photographers selected by the distinguished Maybach Foundation from across the world to document the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in New York – believes that his early days on the streets played a crucial part in his success.

“I got to see the lives of the people who lived on the streets up close and from a perspective not many photographers have had the chance to,” he says. “That must have given my pictures an edge.”

While Vicky can afford to relax now, his early days were harrowing.Barely three years old when his father Mohammad Manzoor, a poor tailor, sent him off to his maternal uncle’s house hoping he would have a better life there, Vicky found his new home a nightmare.

“I was treated very badly by my relatives there,” he says. His only relief was Bollywood movies that he enjoyed watching in the only theatre in his village. “The plots of almost all the films I saw at the time were of a poor man making it big in the city,” he says.

Hoping his life would imitate the films, Vicky was just nine when he “pinched some money from my uncle’s wallet” and ran away. He jumped on to a train that was bound for Delhi, and arrived the next day in a bustling city that was nothing like he’d ever seen, even in movies.

“Witnessing the hustle and bustle on the platform and the huge crowds left me with a sinking feeling,” he says. “Collapsing in a corner I started crying with fear and loneliness.”

The little boy was also hungry – not having had anything to eat except for scraps of leftovers from the train’s trash can. Seeing the sobbing boy, a few street kids came up and asked if he needed any help. “One of them asked if I had run away from home and when I said yes, they told me not to worry and that they would take care of me.”

His uncle, says Vicky, didn’t bother to look for the boy and as for his parents, they were too poor to launch a search for him, so after a few cursory complaints to the police, they simply continued with their life. “Although I was scared, I did not want to return home because the condition back there was not pleasant,” he says.

After a few days on the platform, the street children took Vicky to a shelter run the by Salaam Baalak Trust – a charity that takes in runaway children. It is only for kids below eight, but Vicky was taken in because he looked small for his age. However the boy soon found he was unhappy there.

“I felt stifled with all the rules and regulations in the home. Also, I wanted to make it big in the city like many of the heroes in the movies and felt staying in such a home would not help me realise my dreams,” he says.

He admits that he was a little scared of being out in the world all alone “but I had made some nice friends with the street boys while I was living on the railway platform, and felt there was a lot more excitement on the streets than in the home.”

So one day, after a couple of months in the home, Vicky sneaked out and found his way back to the railway platform. “I liked being with the street boys and living on my own,” he says. The street urchins included him in their group and Vicky went along with them, collecting and selling recyclable garbage to earn money to buy food.

“We used to also collect discarded plastic bottles, refill them with water from taps located on the railway station and sell them to train passengers for Rs5 (Dh0.3) a bottle,” he says. Many days they scavenged through garbage bins of trains for leftover food. “Some lucky days, we would even find boxes of half eaten ice cream.”

But finding food was only one of the challenges. “Cops patrolling the platforms would chase us with their large batons. Gang fights too were common. Some days, older boys would snatch away our savings and also beat us if we protested,” he says.

A year later, one night while snuggling in his tattered blanket in the cold winter of Delhi after having lost his meagre savings to bullies, it dawned on Vicky that his life was not going according to his plan.

“I asked myself, ‘Why did I leave home? To save some money and explore the country and the world, right? But I hadn’t saved any money and had not even explored Delhi,” he says.

Wanting to get his life on track, he decided to land a steady job and offered to work as a dishwasher at a roadside eatery. “Those were the most difficult times of my life as I had to work 20 hours a day in the harshest winter of Delhi.”

The job also left Vicky with a terrible fungal infection in both his hands because he was spending so many hours with his hands in water. “I was depressed and dejected and wondering how to save myself.”

By chance, he met Sanjay Shrivastava, a volunteer of the branch of Salaam Baalak Trust that cares for older runaways, who offered to help him. “‘You are too young to be working and need to be in a care home. I can help you as we have a home for boys like you,’ he told me.”

Vicky was overjoyed. “Although I had run away from a similar home once before, this time I was yearning for some care and help because I was tired due to lack of sleep and was in severe pain because of the infection,” he says.

Sanjay took him to a rescue home where there were several other boys his age. Having realised that life on the road was not that easy or as exciting as was shown in reel life, Vicky was now happy to be in a safe place. His wounds were tended to, he was given enough food and a place to rest and was taken care of well by the volunteers.

The one year he had spent on the road had made him wiser to the ways of the world. “I was 10 years old and felt I needed to get an education or learn a skill so I could realise my dream of saving money and improving my life and then my family’s,” he says.

The charity enrolled Vicky in a government school where the boy turned out to be an above average student. “There were moments when I used to feel homesick and wanted to go home but was not sure how my family would react,” he says. “Also, I wanted to achieve something in life before returning to face my parents.”

So after completing grade 10 – a major milestone as far as he was concerned – Vicky decided to return to his village to meet his parents.

“I remembered where my village and home were so could find my way back home without many problems.” His homecoming was a major celebration in his small house in Kolkata. His mother Zubaida Khatun, 47, could not stop shedding tears of joy at the sight of her beloved son. “She held me in a tight embrace for several minutes and begged me never to leave home again.”

He admits that he felt guilty for having put his family through so much stress. “I was very sad when my sisters told me that my mother had been sobbing for several weeks after she learnt that I had gone missing,” he says.

“But I told her that I did that because I hoped to get a job and give her and our family a better life.”

His family tried to persuade him never to leave their village again. But Vicky was keen to find a niche for himself in the world. “I reasoned with them that I was on the right track, that I am going to make it big in Delhi someday and bail our family out of the poverty they were facing,” says Vicky.

After a month, Vicky once again took a train to Delhi and returned to the care home where the volunteers suggested he enrol for a vocational skill. “Because I loved being out and about, I signed up for a course in photography,” he says. “I had a gut instinct I would do well because I liked being with people and looking at life from a new perspective.”

Slinging a Kodak KB 10 camera over his shoulder that the charity had loaned him, Vicky set off shooting whatever caught his eye. The images he came back with were so amazing that the teachers at the charity suggested he be the guide to British photographer, Benjamin Dixie, who was in Delhi to make a documentary on the Salaam Baalak Trust. “I readily agreed because I wanted to learn as much as I could from him.”

However there was a major hurdle – the language barrier. Dixie, an international photographer who had worked in conflict zones, including Syria and Gaza, would explain things in English “and I would just nod my head in agreement and say ‘yes’ because that was all I knew then”. Although Vicky couldn’t speak English, Dixie helped him by communicating in simple language.

In just a few days the Englishman spotted Vicky’s talent and his passion for photography and started teaching him. “I still remember what Dixie told me when he was leaving Delhi in 2004. ‘A lensman does not need to know the language. He needs to have an extraordinary eye to see and capture detail. You have that. So go chase your dream,’ he told me.”

Dixie knew the budding photographer would do well in his career. “Every now and then, you meet someone who is special and who has a twinkle in their eyes,” he says. “Vicky could barely speak English but he was a very sharp boy. Every time I read about Vicky’s achievements, my heart fills with happiness and pride. I feel like a proud father or big brother.”

He admits that some of Vicky’s works “were not technically perfect, but there were stories in them.”After completing his project, Dixie left Delhi, and the next mentor to fill the vacuum he had left in Vicky’s life was Anay Mann, a Delhi-based portrait-specialist, whose clientele includes Bollywood diva Deepika Padukone.

Introduced by the charity, Anay was so impressed with Vicky that he offered him a job. “I was overjoyed when Anay offered me a salary of Rs3,000, a cell phone and a bike. My dream of becoming a photographer was coming true,” says Vicky. Anay also taught him the finer points of portrait and real life photography. “He would sketch the kind of image he wanted and get me to shoot it with that point of view. He was also always ready to clarify mistakes and would not hesitate to scold me when I was wrong.”

Now that he was earning, Vicky could send some money home to help his family. The same year – 2005 – his father died following a prolonged illness brought on by malnutrition. “My responsibility became greater because I had to look after my mother, two younger brothers and three older sisters,” he says. Living frugally, he saved all that he could to send money home. Vicky also took a loan of Rs28,500 from Salaam Baalak and bought a Nikon camera.

“Since street life was all that I’d known, in my spare time I decided to document the life of children on the streets, at railway stations and in the shelter home. Basically, I started documenting my own life,” he says.

That paid off. In 2007, an official from the British High Commission in Delhi chanced upon his works at an exhibition organised by his boss Anay in a gallery in New Delhi, and impressed by the images, offered to sponsor his solo exhibition. “I couldn’t believe it when such a prestigious organisation like the British Council agreed,” he says.

The photos – showing street children playing by the roadside, having a bath under an open tap, picking garbage, and searching for food in bins – were much appreciated by photography enthusiasts who thronged to the show.

Professional photographers were full of praise for Vicky’s sharp eye, novel angles and perspectives and for his ability at portraying street life like they had never seen before. Even Dixie, his first mentor, was impressed by the works: “So far the world had only seen the plight of urchins, he decided to show the not-so-gloomy side of their life, and the world liked it,” he said.

So popular was the exhibition that the next year – 2008 – the British Council offered to showcase his work at an exhibition in London.

“I was overjoyed because I could travel to new places,” says Vicky. The exhibition was also taken to Vietnam where it received rave reviews. The same year he was awarded a gold medal by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and invited to London to lunch with Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace. “It was a once-in-life-time experience,” he says. “Sitting down for a formal lunch with the Prince was something I never thought I would experience.”

Immediately after that, he participated in an international photography competition organised by the Maybach Foundation. Set up by Maybach heir Ulrich Schmid-Maybach, the Foundation offers a few chosen protégés from across the world the chance to realise their true potential by providing them with leaders in their discipline, stipends and leadership training.

Among those who have benefited from the foundation’s initiative include actors Kirk Douglas and Dennis Hopper, author Paolo Coelho, musician Quincy Jones, and artist LeRoy Neiman.

Vicky, who was on a roll, says his most memorable moment was being selected in 2009 by the Maybach Foundation to live in New York for six months and photo-document the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre. “I was thrilled to get this amazing opportunity,” he says. He also had the chance to pursue a course in photography from International Centre for Photography (ICP), one of the most illustrious institutes in the world.

The photographs from the venue resulted in an exhibition titled WTC Now which was staged in Washington. It was a huge critical success and Vicky decided to stage it in India as well.

“Although I’ve visited several international cities, my favourite city is New York. The exposure to other cultures that I received there helps a lot in your work. It was just fabulous to document the work at WTC. It was a once-in-a-lifetime op,” he says. “But for photography, in terms of subjects, there is no place like India.”

More honours were awaiting him: the American Centre sponsored an exhibition of his WTC works in Delhi while his images were also put on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the renowned Fotomuseum in Switzerland.

Vicky, who last year received a fellowship from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media lab to study convergence of technology and photography, was also invited to the headquarters of Facebook and Google to give talks on photography. “I was overwhelmed to see some of the best tech brains listening to me with rapt attention. During the talk, I saw a sense of pride and respect for a street-dweller in their moist eyes,” he says.

Vicky says that although awards and honours have come to him, big projects were few. “People want good work but are often not willing to pay much,” he says. Nevertheless, he’s been able to save enough to buy a plot of land in his village in Kolkata and build a modest house where his family now lives. He has also been able to put his siblings through college and help them become independent. “I do get a few nice commercial projects to work on and that sees me through,” he says.

Wanting to repay the community, he and fellow photographer Chandan Gomes established an exclusive library of photography books in Delhi called Rang (which means colour).

“We emailed renowned photographers requesting them to donate their books to our library that would cater to amateur photographers who won’t be able to afford to buy and peruse them. And we got an overwhelming response from the fraternity,” says Vicky. In December 2011, Rang was launched with around 500 books. Located in a farmhouse near Qutb Minar in Delhi, Rang also invites established photographers to give talks regularly.

“I have also written a book called Home.Street.Home that takes you through my life journey of eight years. I have tried to show the life of children on the street and in the shelter homes,” says Vicky, who last year took part in a National Geography Channel (NGC) organised reality show. “It was a great initiative and I enjoyed being on the show,” he says. Going back on the road for some of the shots for the show, he says he was reminded of his early days.

“I want to tell those who may think life on the road is exciting that it is not,” he says. “It’s not an easy life. I’ve been there and done that and can tell you it’s very harsh. The only way to make a mark in life is to follow your dream and never give up, whatever happens.”

FEATURE-Climate threats drive India’s ‘tiger widows’ toward open jaws

By Sanjay Pandey | Newslions

LAHIRIPUR, India, Sept 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Geeta Mridha lost her husband on Valentine’s Day 2014. He was fishing in the backwaters of India’s Sundarbans National Park with four others when a tiger leaped out of the jungle and dragged him away by the throat.

Mridha says the other men didn’t even have time to react. His body was never found.

“After my husband’s departure, I became completely helpless and hopeless. I didn’t know what to do and how to run the family,” she said.

The Sundarbans National Park, in the state of West Bengal on the India-Bangladesh border, is known for its natural beauty, with its lush mangroves and rich wildlife. But for people like Mridha, who live on the floodplains, the park is a place of hardship and loss.

 

The Sundarbans is home to the world’s largest population of tigers, and coastal erosion due to climate change is pushing human residents further into their path. Every year, 50 fishermen or honey collectors are killed in tiger attacks, researchers estimate.

After losing their family’s breadwinner, women are left to fend for themselves and their children. They are the “tiger widows” of West Bengal.

‘HUSBAND EATER’

 

Geeta Mridha, who lost her husband to a tiger attack, paddles a wooden boat through a dense mangrove forest in the Sundarbans, India, July 7, 2017. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Sujanya Das/Newslions

For the widows of the Sundarbans, the search for regular income is compounded by the social stigma they face.

study published in the journal Environmental Health Insights in 2016 found that women widowed by tigers are often blamed – unjustly – for the deaths of their husbands.

In India’s patriarchal society, women are often seen as responsible for any ill fortune that befalls a family. In the Sundarbans most tiger widows are branded “swami-khego” or “husband-eaters” by their inlaws.

“Fearing being ostracised by society, these women keep to themselves and go about their life pretending as if nothing happened,” said Arjun Mandal of the Sunderbans Rural Development Society (SRDS) and the head of a local community of fishermen.

SRDS, which conducted an informal survey between 2006 and 2016 with the help of fishermen and their families, estimates that 260 families have lost breadwinners to tiger attacks in Lahiripur alone.

FACING THE JAWS

In the past, widows had been able to make a living after their husbands’ deaths by cultivating prawns or carrying out small-scale survival farming. But sea-level rise and population growth are putting the delta’s delicate ecosystems under increasing pressure.

Today 4.5 million people live in the Sundarbans, where parcels of fertile land are being swallowed by rising seas, mangrove cover is dying, and the coast is eroding.

This means the only option open to widows is often to go out and fish the waters in the jungles where their husbands were killed.

“Once the salty water breaches the embankment and enters your land, it makes the field infertile forever,” said Alapi Mandal, who lost her husband in a tiger attack a decade ago.

Like Mandal and Mridha, Alapi (the two are not related) is also from Lahiripur in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.

Mandal grew crops and vegetables on her own land until last year, when an embankment breach swallowed her house and farm.

Mridha never owned any land to farm, and struggled to feed and pay school fees for her two children, now 11 and 9 after her husband’s death. In 2015, she and 10 other women formed a group and began going to the jungle together.

“I cannot let my children starve to death,” Mridha said. “That’s why I decided to go to the jungle.”

PASSWORD FROM POVERTY

Geeta Mridha and three other women who have lost their husbands to tiger attacks prepare bait to catch crabs on their way to fishing grounds in the Sundarbans, India, July 7, 2017. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Sujanya Das/Newslions

None of the women wants their children to be trapped in the same vicious cycle of poverty and danger.

“I have told them that education is the password to get out of this,” Mridha said. “I always tell them to concentrate only on their studies.”

Many women say that if they could find any other work that ensured their families two meals a day they would stop going to the jungle. They don’t want to risk their lives, and they want to spend more time with their children, to make sure they stay focused on studies.

But community stigma and the loss of arable land make this a distant dream for most tiger widows.

Moved by their plight, Arjun Mandal of SRDS has launched a crowd-funding campaign to help the women find a safer way of earning a living, such as manufacturing candle wicks for local markets and temples.

So far it has brought in just 7,500 rupees ($117).

“We appeal to all the pious people out there… to extend a helping hand for these families,” he said.

(Reporting by Sanjay Pandey @newslions_live; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

No Child’s Play: Minors Risk life In India To Add Glitter To Your Looks

A boy at work in an illegal mica mine in Koderma.

Koderma, India – Children toiling illegally in Indian mines are producing a key ingredient used in the products of some of the global cosmetics industry’s most prominent names.

A report by campaign group DanWatch said child labour is being used in the eastern states of Jharkhand and Bihar to extract mica, which is then added to the make-up produced by at least 12 multinational companies.

At least 5,000 children may be producing mica – used to add glitter to natural cosmetics – which is bought by intermediaries and then exported to high-profile international customers such as L’Oreal and Estee Lauder.

“In our research we found illegal mica mining often involves child labour, which is a significant problem in India,” Louise Voller of DanWatch told Al Jazeera.

“This report confirms that most companies do not give the consumers a clear picture of their supply chain.”

Deadly work

The abandoned mica mines start shimmering under the rising sun in Koderma, Jharkhand, as a group of sleepy children trudges towards the Charki mine holding their tools.

Five-year-old Ajay Das hurriedly slips into a narrow hole and starts his day. His tiny hands can barely balance the hammer, but he still hits the glistening wall accurately.

Ajay works six days a week and after labouring for seven to eight hours each day in hazardous conditions,he manages to earn a paltry 20 rupees ($0.33) – barely enough to kill his hunger pangs.

“The mines were closed two decades ago. Since then, poor people from neighbouring areas have been involved in scrap mining,” Ramlakhan Paswan, a schoolteacher working near the Charki mines, told Al Jazeera.

“This leads to mishaps every now and then. At times, children working with their parents often get trapped and die when the roof or the mine wall collapse.”

Miner Karu Das, 25, lost his wife to an accident in Charki mine five-years ago.

“She had come to collect mica scraps but got trapped in the mine,” Karu said. “By the time we dug her out she was dead.”

But Karu continues to risk his own life – and the lives of his children – as they have no other source of income. “Legal or illegal, it guarantees two square meals a day.”

Soaring demand

A boom in mica – a key ingredient in products such as facepacks, mascara, eyeliner, lipstick, and nail polish – is being fuelled by soaring demand for natural cosmetics, as artificial makeup made of synthetic chemicals have been linked to illness, including cancer.

According to the Indian Bureau of Mines, the country officially produces about 15,000 tonnes of crude and scrap mica a year, but surprisingly, in 2011-12 India exported more than 130,000 tonnes – more than eight times the official figure.

About half of India’s export was destined for China, from where it was then routed to several European and US cosmetic giants.

It has been two decades since most mica mines were closed on environmental grounds, but the closures prompted many people to resort to illegal mining, pushing children into this hazardous work.

According to DanWatch, most of India’s exports of high-quality mica flakes comes from illegal mines – and are produced by child miners such as Ajay.

Jharkhand lost about $4bn to illegal mining in 2012-13, according to a recent federal government report.

5,000 children

Suresh Kumar Jain, owner of Koderma-based mica exporter Jain Brothers, said: “The mica industry used to employ 20,000 people until 1993. But now it merely employs 1,000 people legally. But around 5,000 children are involved in scrap mining. The government should allow these poor villagers to do mining and do it in safety after taking the necessary precautions.”

The report on the use of child labour in the cosmetics industry by DanWatch – an NGO that campaigns against the exploitation of workers – examined 16 companies behind 20 brands. Twelve cannot or will not disclose where they source the mica they use.

German company Merck KGaA, which supplies mica to cosmetic brands around the world such as L’Oreal, admitted to sourcing the raw material from exporters in Jharkhand and Bihar. However, the company said that the minerals were extracted from legal mines.

But research carried out by DanWatch suggests the contrary, pointing out that it was impossible to differentiate between mica extracted from legal and illegal mines. Local exporters have maintained that the number of legal mines has decreased drastically since the 90s.

The intermediaries, however, will not name their foreign clients.

“We cannot reveal the name of our clients. It is a business secret. All I can tell you is that we process the raw material and ship it to our clients abroad,” said Mohan Modi, an intermediary, who even refused to disclose the name of his company.

In an email statement to Al Jazeera, Merck’s manager of media relations Gerhard Lerch, said: “The Merck Social Charter explicitly bans child labour. We demand that our suppliers act accordingly, stipulating in our contracts with them that they do not employ children … Merck has implemented all necessary steps to ensure compliant sourcing and to ensure that no children are involved in the processing of the pigment.”

Merck said it has reduced dependence on Indian-sourced mica, but it will continue to receive it from mines in Jharkhand. In terms of efforts to combat child labour in mines, Lerch said the company has a tracking system for the mica, and it constantly communicates with the Jharkhand government.

Blind eye

United Nations conventions make it illegal for children under 14 years old to work in mining, which the International Labour Organisation said is the worst form of child exploitation.

Yet the fact that child labour is used to mine mica in India appears to be well known – even though the government turns a blind eye to the problem.

When Al Jazeera asked India’s mines secretary Anup K Pujari about illegal mica mining in Jharkhand, he replied: “What am I supposed to say? Well, the government doesn’t recognise any illegal activity there.”

Mica use in cosmetics has also been linked to child labour in the past. In 2009, Merck KGaA was accused of using children to mine mica in India.

In a face-saving gesture, the pharmaceutical giant opened schools in partnership with NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an organisation that has helped create “child-friendly villages” in Jharkhand, where children do not work.

However, BBA’s founder Kailash Satyarthi has called Merck’s efforts “window dressing”.

“They don’t have a sustainable programme,” he said. “They started the schools with much fanfare, but we have observed that none of the schools and health centres are functioning properly now.

“The government does not want to stop illegal mining and cares little about the welfare of the children.”

P.S: This story primarily appeared in the in-depth features section of Al Jazeera English in 2014

Indian man works as a statue standing stationary for up to six hours at a time

Abdul Aziz stands absolutely still all day. Known as India’s statue man, the 54-year-old is a huge draw at an amusement park in Tamil Nadu

By Sanjay Pandey

What led you to become a statue man?

I actually started my career as a security guard in VGP Golden Beach Resort in Chennai, way back in 1984. The park owner, while once on a visit to the UK, saw the royal guards outside Buckhingham Palace and wanted to do something similar here. So he chose around 10 of us to train to become statue men. I was one of them. Initially, I didn’t like the idea, but I didn’t have the courage to say no to my employer as I didn’t want to be without a job. That’s how I landed this job.

What was the training session like?

During the three-month training in 1985, we were made to stand still in a particular pose for about four hours without moving. We were not supposed to blink our eyes, sip water or eat food during those duty hours. We could not smile, talk or even shoo away a fly if it bothered us.

How do you keep yourself from braking into a chuckle or smile when people pose for selfies with you?

It is very tough but my training has been good I suppose. In the initial days of my career, it was very difficult to stay still if somebody tried to make me laugh by doing silly antics in front of me or by telling a joke. I guess I’m very good because the management had announced a cash reward of Rs10,000 to anyone who spots me flinch. It’s been 31 years now and to date thousands of people have witnessed me as a statue but have never been able to see me move. So the cash reward has still remained unclaimed.

A lot of people must have tried their luck to get the award, right?

Oh yes, several. Several celebrities and comedians from the Tamil film industry too have tried their luck.

Tamil film actors such as Vaijayanti Mala, Shivaji Ganesan, Arjun and Saroja have tried to make me laugh and move. A couple of years ago,well-known stunt director Kanal Kannan tried to make me move by doing various antics and when he failed, he garlanded me with a bunch of currency notes as a mark of appreciation.

Sometimes, women visitors kiss me on my cheeks to distract me and break my stillness. Some have even said I’m not a human but a robot.

Occasionally pesky kids try to poke and prod me to make me move. In such cases, there are security guards who come to my aid.

You must be practising really hard to stay immobile…

Yes, I do. Many people ask me what my secret is to remain immobile for hours and how I manage to do all this without taking rest. My answer is yoga. I practice power yoga every day. That makes me strong enough to perform my duties with ease.

I’ve been told that no one in the world can stand like statue for six hours at a stretch. Even the world famous guards at the Buckingham Palace change shifts after every two hours.

I also go for a long walk every morning and try to remain very active when not playing statue man. I eat only home cooked food and avoid junk food. I think the body is a temple if you don’t pollute it with unnecessary additions and temptations, you can achieve whatever you desire.

Has being a statue man taken a toll on your body?

Standing like a statue for hours might look easy, but it is a very difficult and demanding job. The park owner had trained three people; I am the only one who is still in the job. I’ve trained four to five persons of which only one managed to learn the skills. Now, I am teaching him the nuances of the job to take over once I retire.

When I started the job, I was full of vigour and energy. But, now over the years, I have come to know the stress involved, which is affecting my health. Standing still for hours has started to affect my blood circulation. However my yoga exercises are helping me a bit. I might have got a few health related problem may because of the nature of the job or simply because of age, but I owe heavily to this profession that has made me a celebrity of sorts. Now, wherever I go people come to me, talk to me and take selfies with me. But despite all the hardship and health problems, I love my job and I am thankful to people for the love and respect, they have showered on me.

Is this a well-paying profession?

I earn around Rs10,000 a month. It is tough to manage a family which includes three sons and my wife.

I have recently started door to door delivery of milk to earn some extra bucks.

How long do you think you would like to work as a statue man?

Thanks to this job, I’ve become famous not only in India but also in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. Tourists from there have gone back after taking selfies with me. Now, I’m 54 now and plan to retire soon. But before I do that I need to find a replacement and train him to be the next statute man. As far as my children are concerned, they are not going to take up this profession as it is a taxing job with little pay.

When the time comes, I want to die playing a statue.

‘Nowhere People’ of India and Bangladesh Finally Get Home

By Sanjay Pandey

As a visitor enters the enclave of Madhya Moshaldanga near the border of India and Bangladesh, excited children holding Indian flags encircle him and chant, “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” Victory for Mother India!

The enclave is on the Indian side of the border — but the people living there aren’t Indian. Nor are they quite Bangladeshi, as they don’t have citizenship there. Instead, they are known as “nowhere people.”

According to the Indian government, they are among about 14,000 people currently living in 51 Bangladeshi enclaves — parcels of land technically belonging to one country but encompassed by another — on the Indian side of the border. About 37,000 Indians live in 111 enclaves on the Bangladeshi side. Residents of the enclaves typically have no access to public services such as roads, power, schools, and hospitals. And they often face persecution from those living around them.

The population numbers derive from a census taken by India in 2011, but local NGOs and activists peg the population somewhere closer to 100,000. And they say another 50,000 people who fled their enclaves inside Bangladesh due to persecution live as refugees further inside India.

In May, India’s parliament passed the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement (LBA), ending a 40-year political deadlock and paving the way for statehood for the 50,000 stateless people living in the 166 enclaves, counter-enclaves, and counter-counter enclaves in India’s Cooch Behar and Bangladesh’s Rangpur districts. (Bangladesh’s parliament approved the agreement soon after Prime Minister Muzibur Rahman signed it — in 1974.)

Under the terms of the deal, India will begin transferring its enclaves to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh will transfer its enclaves to India; as a result, the border between the two countries will be redrawn. Beginning today and lasting for the next 11 months, New Delhi and Dhaka will implement the LBA. The Indian government has allotted close to $50 million to aid enclave residents in the transition.

Those affected can choose in which country they wish to settle and have citizenship. A large number of Indian enclave residents plan to return to India proper, but most residents of Bangladeshi enclaves say they don’t want to return to Bangladesh because they believe they face a brighter future in India.

This may very well be why people in Bangladeshi enclaves have been in a celebratory mood since the May announcement (“Bharat Mata ki Jai!”). Immediately after the passage of the LBA, residents of Madhya Moshaldanga rallied to celebrate their “freedom,” ending up in the neighboring Indian village of Battala.

But Battala residents did not react well.

“A few men armed with bamboo sticks accosted us as our procession crossed the borders of the enclave, and asked if we had the legal permission to enter into Indian mainland,” 25-year-old Jainul Abidin told VICE News. “They said, ‘Go back or get ready to be beaten up.'”

As the sun went down, Abidin said, a group of men armed with knives and sticks invaded Madhya Moshaldanga, attacked the revelers, and set a house on fire.

“What enrages them is that we have been a soft target for them for decades,” Abidin said. “They would come to our village and intimidate us. They would forcefully take away our cattle and standing crops, but we could not do anything as there was no rule of law that existed in the enclaves.”

But to the surprise of Madhya Moshaldanga residents, Indian police arrested one of the men who’d attacked the village.

“This is just the beginning of the end of apathy for the enclaves people,” said Deeptiman Sengupta of the Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee, which represents enclave residents. He said they will no longer have to bribe Indian officials or citizens to procure fake birth certificates and identification cards to gain access to public services.

Thirty-two-year-old Bangladeshi Abdul Rehman of Karola enclave says he can now get married. In 2013, Rehman was set to marry a woman in the neighboring village of Nadina. But when the bride’s family learned that he hailed from a Bangladeshi enclave, they immediately cancelled the wedding and told the groom’s party to “get the hell out of here,” refusing to allow their daughter to move to the “God-forbidden land,” he says.

“It was at that time I took a vow that I will marry only when I become a citizen of India,” Rehman said.

In 2010, Asma Biwi got pregnant with her third child. While in labor, the 30-year-old was rushed to an Indian hospital where the authorities refused accept her. After activists from human rights groups stepped in, Asma was admitted to the hospital, but her family still made certain to fake the name and address of her husband, since they were residents of a Bangladeshi enclave.

The boy, now 5 years old, is named Jihad in reference to the struggle his parents endured at his birth.

There are different theories about how the enclaves came to be. One legend holds that they are the result of a 17th century chess match between the King of Cooch Behar in India and the Mughal Faujdar of Rangpur state in which they wagered their territories. A 2004 paper by the University of Melbourne’s Brendan R. Whyte states the enclaves are the “result of peace treaties in 1711 and 1713 between the kingdom of Cooch Behar and the Mughal empire, ending a long series of wars in which the Mughals wrested several districts from Cooch Behar.”

After the partition of India in the middle of the 20th century, which led to the formation of Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh, residents of the enclaves truly became nowhere people, and the absence of the rule of law turned the areas into a haven for criminals. Enclave residents on each side of the border became easy targets.

“We would be persecuted on a daily basis as Hindus are a minority there,” said 50-year-old Subol Mondal, an enclave evictee who lived on an Indian counter-enclave inside Bangladesh. “Our women, land, cattle, and house were easy targets for religious fanatics who came in numbers with Bangladeshi security personnel.”

Mondal now lives as a refugee in Gaisal, India.

“My heart says I should go back to my parental place in Bangladesh,” he said. “But my mind says, ‘Haven’t you learnt a lesson from the past?'”

India’s sari clad free divers risk life to fish out seaweed to earn a living

By Sanjay Pandey

The very mention of free diving paints a picture of an adventure sport that is meant to give people the adrenaline rush.

But for around 300 women from Rameshwaram’s Chinnapalam (or Little Bride) village free diving is no sports — it is a battle of survival.

Unlike the conventional divers, these women — aged between 20 and 60 — cannot afford a diving suit, a mask or an oxygen cylinder. So these sari-clad divers take a leap of faith every time they dive into the sea for a rather pressing concern: to earn a living.

Situated on the confluence of two seas — Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean in the Gulf of Mannnar, islands off Rameshwaram harbor a treasure-trove of marine wealth.

Seaweed is the common name for countless species of marine plants and algae that grow in the ocean and are used in foods, cosmetics and medicines.

When I first learnt about the phrase the sari-clad free divers of Rameshwaram from a friend some four months ago, I was completely intrigued.

My quest to find these gritty women started on March 14. After the overnight journey when we were about to enter Rameshwaram, we crossed a long bridge. A fellow passenger told me that this was the Paban bridge, India’s first and second longest sea-bridge that connects the mainland with Pamban islands.

Though the place was new and I was visiting Rameshwaram for the first time, the name Pamban sounded familiar to me. After jogging my brains backwards, I recalled that I had seen this place in Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Chennai Express movie.

When our local guide told us that these women also live in Pamban. Yes the same place where Thangaballi lived in the movie, I got even more excited to see the place and its people.

On our way to the seaweed collectors’ village, I crained my neck from the three-wheeler, hoping to spot any of the big guys featured in the film. Tough luck, I could only see poverty, sqaulor as we passed through Pamban block to enter the dustbowl village of Chinnapalam.

 

On our right is an army of haphazardly anchored boats and on the left is the village that has a cluster of thatched houses, punctuated by a few one-story pucca houses. Laxmi Moorthy, the 48-year-old seaweedcollector also lives in one of the few pucca houses in the village.

But when we reached there, we were told Laxmi was not home. There was a wedding ceremony happening in the village temple. The entire village was busy with the wedding that which would get over in an hour.

As agreed earlier, the seaweed collectors went back home and reassembled near the coast in hour. It was around 9am in the morning, when we started for Kurusadi Theevu. We had wade through the shallow waters for around 500 meters to reach to the country boat that was waiting for us. Once on the boat, we were asked to change into lungs to avoid being detected by the coast guards.

Once everything settled down, Laxmi Moorthy starts narrating her story. “I started seaweed collectionas a child and had two near-death experience in her four decade long career as a seaweed harvestor, told me: “I have cheated death twice. The first one was when I was around 10 to 12 years old. The other incident happened during the Tsunami (of 2004). This took place near the Kurusadi Theevu. In this incident, I was the lone survivor of the 15 people who were onboard in the ill-fated boat.”

“We ransom our lives to enter the sea so that we can earn something to eat,” says Laxmi as she wraps pieces of clothes around her fingers to protect them from thorns attached to seaweed.

Despite the risk the number of women going to the sea has increased over the years. Earlier, there were only 50-60 seaweed collectors, now the number has gone up to 300.

Bhagawathy S, who is the head of the seaweed collectors’ group, says: “While income has reduced after the harvesting restrictions, the number of people in the trade has increased. Earlier, only a few women used to go the sea, but now a lot of women have come in the business. We are facing problem in running the family because of reduced income.”

After all this hardship these women make around Rs 300-500 daily during the 12 working days in a month. And they cannot let that go at any cost.

So what if they don’t have proper mask, they make do with a borrowed snorkeling mask, pieces of cotton wrapped around their fingers serve as hand gloves and slippers make for flippers.

“You have seen that we enter the sea in whatever dress we are wearing (read saris), and bruise our hands and feet while harvesting the seaweeds. To safeguard our life and limbs, we need protective suits, gloves and shoes,” insists Laxmi who has been bitten by electric eels several times.

Since childhood, Lakshmi has worked in the Gulf of Mannar as a seaweed harvester, a subsistence living for many women of her community.

In 2002, that livelihood came under threat as the government began enforcing a marine reserve in their traditional harvesting grounds.

“Sometimes the forest department officials seize our fishing nets, food and other materials. When we request them to release the items, they ask for bribe,” says Bhagawathy, 37, who is sole bread-winner of family after her husband became bed-ridden and unfit to go the sea.

Seaweed harvesting near the islands is prohibited after the 2002 declaration. The administration is now planning to barricade the island and bar entry within a radius of 500 metres.

“The forest department doesn’t allow us go beyond 60km from the shores. That’s why we started protesting and demanding withdrawal of such restrictions. Most of the seaweed is found within half a kilometer of radius of the islands, if they block our access to the islands, how are we supposed to do seaweed harvesting. How will be put food for our families and tend our ailing loved ones,” Bhagawathy argued while getting ready to take a jump.

As the former head of seaweed collectors’ union, Laxmi helped organize the displaced workers into a federation that decided to protect both the environment and women’s livelihood.In 2014, the government agreed to recognize the Gulf of Mannar seaweed collectors as a unique group of fisher women and issued them biometric ID cards to protect them from harassment by officials. They are now free to safeguard the resource and to pursue their livelihood.

“Following this, we curtailed harvesting to 12 days in a months i.e. six days from every Pournami (full moon day), then a break of nine days. And, then again do harvesting from Amavaasi (new moon day) followed by a break of nine days, “ Laxmi.

Through the self-regulation under which they work for 12 days and take a rest for 18 days, the seaweedcollectors intend to give time for the seaweeds to regenerate / regrowth.

Recognizing Laxmi’s contribution in uniting the women and protecting the seaweeds, Laxmi was given the Seacology Award in California, US, last year.

These women make around Rs 6000 every month and use that money to run their family and put their children through school.

Bhagawathy has been in the business of seaweed harvesting for the past 18 years, but she doesn’t want her children to take up this profession.

“There is a lot of hardship in this profession. That’s why I want my children to study well and take up a better job,” she argues.

Laxmi, who donated Rs 2 lakh of the reward money for construction of a school in Chinnapalam, echoes Bhagawathy’s sentiment. “We have understood that illiteracy is the reason for our backwardness, and only through education we can progress forward in life,” she sums up.

HEARTBREAKING! Elephants feast on RUBBISH dumped by civic body in India

Gentle giants of Gudalur, southern India feast on garbage which includes deadly plastic waste.

NINTCHDBPICT000242207559

THESE heartbreaking photos show hungry elephants rummaging through steaming piles of garbage in a southern Indian dump.
The pics show the gentle giants forced to feast on rubbish in the town of Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, where 19 tons of waste is dumped every day.

Despite the plentiful vegetation in nearby woods – the animals’ huge trunks cannot resist the stench of the dumping ground.

Local authorities deposit a massive 19 tons of waste, generated by the town’s 50,000 residents, in the four acre plot every day.

NINTCHDBPICT000242207468
The dump yard is close to Mudumalai forest which is home to the group of elephants.
Sightings of the huge beasts are so common in the area that drivers often see them walking along the road side.
The elephants even anticipate when the garbage trucks arrive at the dump – which is around eight times a day.

NINTCHDBPICT000242207461

However, there have been reports of the huge animals dying from ingesting plastic from the site.

In 2014, an elephant was found dead with around two kilograms of plastic waste stuck in its bowels in a forest clearing in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala in the south of the country.

NINTCHDBPICT000242207559

Conservationists say dumping urban waste in elephant areas poses a grave danger to the beasts.

Sadiq Ali, the founder of the Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust (WNCT), said: “It’s a life threatening issue.

“There is a high chance of diseases spreading to the wild elephants.”

The Tamil Nadu Forest Department has written to the town stating that the dump is located in a notified forest area.

NINTCHDBPICT000242207461

Authorities have proposed to erect solar fencing around the garbage dump with the help of charities.
Environmentalists have also approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT), India’s court for green issues, to rein in the local authority.
The town originally started dumping the waste following an NGT order which banned disposing of the garbage in the nearby areas of Thorapalli and Chelukkadi.

The story was exclusively published in The Sun.