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.
KOLKATA/CALCUTTA — Multinational businesses such as IBM and Vodafone have offices nearby, a five-star Marriott hotel is going up on the main airport road — all within walking distance of pricey pastel apartment blocks that look like Legoland in the hazy sun-baked distance. Half-built condos, still encased in scaffolding, are shooting up all overin eastern Kolkata and will be serviced by a new metro line linked to the airport. But a mile or so away from the Marriott site is Kolkata dhapa, or rubbish dump, a vast, decades-old hill of plastic, rubber, tin and old clothes, perhaps 10-12 acres in area and 60ft-70ft high.
HANOI – China’s rise has altered the dynamics within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and across Asia, as was on display at recently concluded summits meetings in Hanoi. Chinese naval expansion and increasingly assertive claims to disputed maritime areas in the East and South China Seas has prompted Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and others to reaffirm their enthusiasm for America’s security umbrella after some ambivalence in recent years. Japan and India, China’s main Asian rivals, are increasingly looking to each other, and to Southeast Asia, as a hedge against China’s rise, which has taken a hard turn in recent months. Prime Ministers Naoto Kan and Manmohan Singh met after the Hanoi summits, which were overshadowed by the mud-slinging coming from the Chinese and Japanese delegations. “Prime Minister Kan was keen to understand how India engages China,” India’s foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao said after that meeting. As well as increasing ties with Japan, India’s slow-to-action ‘Look East’ policy, which has brought the self-proclaimed world’s largest democracy into disrepute over its feting of the Myanmar junta, is likely to be enhanced in coming years, as highlighted in the statement issued after the India-ASEAN summit.