KOLKATA/CALCUTTA — “We get around 200 calls a day,” says Ranita Nandi, a counsellor working at the Hamara Ghair (‘Our House’), a sort of way-station for kids who have fled harsh home or working lives in Kolkata and elsewhere in West Bengal or farther away in neighbouring states in northeast India. In some of India’s poorer rural communities, children leave school early, sent to work on farms or elsewhere. Ranita’s organisation, the Child In Need Institute (CINI), handles some of the calls to the childline set up for children who want help. Some end up staying at the Hamara Ghair for a short time. The line rings several times in a few minutes, while Ranita explains how the facility works. In Kolkata alone, the line received 168,139 calls in the March 2011-April 2012 period – though of those ‘only’ 24,205 ended up as actual conversations. “Sadly we get a lot of crank calls,” says Ranita, pointing out statistics showing 43,664 calls listed as ‘Crank/Fun/Abusive’.
KOLKATA/CALCUTTA — It’s an overnight train ride from Chattisagarh to India’s third biggest city Kolkata, a journey 17 year old Lakshmi Kumari makes once a year with her parents. They are among the estimated one and a quarter million poor Indians who work on Kolkata’s brick kilns, back-breaking seasonal work in 35-40 degrees heat. Asia’s third biggest economy after China and Japan, India’s two decades of around 8% annual growth has lifted tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The country’s middle class now numbers around 300 million, and some Indians are making their mark on the world economy. Last year 55 Indians made the Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires, up from 23 in 2006. In 2008, Tata Motors bought Jaguar and Land Rover, a deal striking for its reverse-colonial symbolism, as an Indian company acquired 2 quintessentially-British brands.
KOLKATA — On the outskirts of India’s third-largest city, 5,000 partly blackened chimneys stand 100 feet high, belching smoke into the sky over millions of reddened bricks below. Some of the bricks are stacked neatly into huge square-cornered stacks, and still more, innumerable, are piled roughly – some broken, some chipped and cracked, as if tipped wantonly from a wheelbarrow. Here around 1.25 million low-caste migrant workers and their dependents spend six months each year dredging clay from nearby lakes or molding bricks under the scorching sun, or lugging back-breaking hods. It is seasonal work, done by India’s lowest castes, or in some cases, dirt-poor immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Ram Dayal, whose home is in Gazpar in Uttar Pradesh, a 24-hour train ride away, says has worked the kilns for 25 weather-beating years. Asked his age, he laughs and says he doesn’t know exactly. “I have a son about your age though,” he says.
JUBA, SUDAN — “If someone from southern Sudan trusts you, they will tell you enough to write a book.” So says Sr. Cecilia Sierra Salcido, a Mexican nun and media entrepreneur who runs Radio Bakhita in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, set to be the world’s newest independent state after a January 9 referendum. Preliminary results suggest the vote will be overwhelmingly in favor of independence, a vote that came after two million people died and over 4 million fled their homes during a long 1983-2005 war. For the most part the conflict entailed the Sudanese Army fighting southern resistance groups, before a U.S.-backed peace deal that included a secession vote provision.
JUBA — Five and six hundred yards long queues formed either side of the entrance to polling stations – men on one side, women on the the other. They wait in excitement and euphoria on the first day of polling — here — in what would be the new capital of an independent southern Sudan. The scenes have been repeated all across the region in voting this week to decide whether the region should remain part of Sudan or form the world’s newest country. Among a group at the end of the line of the polling queue at Saint Bakhita Primary School is 28 year old Joel, who works as a security guard. “We are going to be free” he said. ” I have no doubt about it.” His friend, 22 year old Marcus, said that he hopes a new southern Sudan will provide jobs and development for one of the poorest regions in the world. “It is better to be on our own. We can support our own people better that way.”
SUKKUR — In the ad-hoc child malnutrition facility at the Railway Hospital in Sukkur, mothers cradle and nurse their toddlers, all emaciated and weakened. A row of beds runs either side of the ward in the brown and gray-painted Raj-era hospital, upon one of which sits three year-old Zamina. She was malnourished before the floods hit, but the flight from the family farm in Thulla to this heaving city in northern Sindh worsened the tiny girl’s condition considerably, says Dr Sakina Jafri, pausing to speak as she moved from bed to bed. “With the threat of disease all around, young children are most prone,” she said. “And when they are so young and are malnourished, it only adds to that level of vulnerability.”
GARHI KHUDA BAKSH — Outside Garhi Khuda Baksh in Sindh Province, men, women and children lie under upturned beds which have been propped up at an angle with sticks or broken-off tree branches. Those I spoke with understand clearly what the disaster that has befallen their country means. “We have been set back thirty years,” said Fatima, a mother of seven ,and one of twelve people seeking shade under a rough-and-ready shelter made from plastic sheeting and bamboo, loosely tied-down with rope and a peg on two corners, running diagonally from top-right to bottom-left.
SINDH PROVINCE — Dirty, tired and bedraggled, Imran beckons us over to the women who fled their village. They came thirty miles on foot only to spend almost three weeks here in the dead heat at this makeshift camp outside Sukkur in southern Pakistan. “Take some photographs”, he implores. “You sure this is OK?” I reply, our conversation translated from Sindhi to English and back again by Nizam Ud Din Bharchood, a long time charity worker for Hands, a NGO based in southern Pakistan. “Go ahead, he insists!” assured Nizam. Often foreigners cannot take photos of women or girls in Pakistan, but Imran waives this, showing a canny insight into how best to raise awareness about his people’s plight. The ladies, adorned in their assorted pinks, greens and orange veils, clasp their children close and sit atop a rusted old bed, one of the few possessions they managed to carry from one of their houses. Photo taken, Imran explains their plight. “We are here twenty days now, without any shelter and only a little food.”
SUKKUR — On the road in from the airport, the water shimmered under the moonlight as men, women and children sat in the dark, near the would-be lakeshore. During the day, river dolphins can usually be spotted in the nearby river. It sounds idyllic, you might think, but not so. This dusty and ramshackle town is at the front-line of one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters in living memory. Usually there is no water lapping up at the roadside, and the only people there would be those out for an evening snack after the daytime Ramadan fast.