It was the year 1989 and was around the time that I was slowly beginning to understand the indigenous way of life. These were also some of the best years of my life and I cherish the memories of my association with some of the elderly tribal chieftains of Heggadadevanakote. I was keen on learning how the Jenukurubas, an indigenous tribe with distinct anthropological features collected ‘Jenu’ (honey) from the forests. Hostel Masthi (as he was popularly called) was the chieftain of the Jenukurubas living in Hosahalli and surrounding colonies and was a respected elder who used to be sober only when he ventured into the forest. On learning that I was keen to understand how they collected wild honey, he invited me on his next trip. Full of anticipation of the adventure ahead, I set out with him, his 10 year old son Mara and 3 other Jenukuruba tribals from the colony. After a walk of around 3-4 kms, Masthi spotted a large bee hive hanging high up on a tall tree. He asked Kala who was accompanying him to quickly climb up the tree to cut the hive with the sickle that he was carrying. Kala was a natural and watching him climb up the tree is something that I can never forget. Within minutes he seemed to reach the hive and shouted out to Masthi to be ready below. Not sure of what was happening, I stood a little distance away watching the whole scene unfold in front of me. Masthi and another tribal Mahadeva spread out their towel and placed the broad leaves that they had freshly cut from a nearby teak-wood tree on it. Holding each end of the towel, they stood underneath the tree in direct line of the hive. The bees must have sensed Kala’s presence and started buzzing angrily around the hive. In a split-second Kala seemed to put his hand into the hive and gently extracted out the ‘queen’ and placed it in the middle of his forearm. All the bees followed the queen and quickly settled down on his forearm. I stood transfixed staring at the hive that was forming on Kala’s forearm and was left wondering why Kala was not getting stung by these disturbed bees. With his other spare arm, Kala sliced the hive around 6-8 inches below where it was attached to the branch and the rest of the hive with the honey, wax, pupa and all came crashing down. More adept than a determined fielder on a cricket field, Masthi and his mate caught the falling hive on the teak leaf bed and folded the cloth immediately around it. Kala in the meanwhile pulled the queen again from the new hive on his hand and gently put her back on to the original base of the hive still hanging from the tree. And within minutes, all the remaining bees flocked around their queen and the hive formed into the exact shape that it was before Kala had sliced it. Kala came down the tree as quickly as he had climbed it and everything seemed to happen within a few minutes and it looked as though nothing had really changed.
I was left spell bound and unsure of how to respond when Masthi offered me a dripping piece of the crushed hive – honey, wax and possibly some unlucky pupa and larva. I had never tasted anything like this and it surely was finger licking good. Masthi felt that we had enough adventure for the day and we started to walk back to Hosahalli. On the way back, I could not contain my curiosity any longer and was keen to know why Kala sliced the hive so low and had left most of the honey back in the hive itself. It seemed economically stupid that someone would leave behind much of the honey back in the hive and still feel that they had completed a good days job. Masthi’s answer continues to resonate in my ears even today. For him this was indeed a no-brainer. He simplistically explained that the honey belonged to the bees and that they were actually thieves stealing it from them. In fact, the song that they were singing was to seek the bees’ forgiveness for taking away what was rightfully theirs. He said that since the bees had done all the hard work in collecting the honey, it was only more than fair that they left behind most of it for them to use during the difficult months ahead. If he and his people did not have to use this part of the hive with the honey in it for food and preparing medicines, he would not even have taken this much too. And Masthi and his fellow tribals were bringing back this hive not just for themselves but to be shared amongst all his clansmen. For a person educated in a system that looks to maximizing profits and minimizing labour, this lesson in compassion, fairness and sharing seemed perplexing. For a world that seems to be rapidly absorbing and celebrating the spirit of market economics and individual attainment, Masthi and his fellow tribals will seem unreal and this anecdote difficult to believe. Masthi and people of his generation are long dead now but along with them has also disappeared this sustainable and meaningful way of living too. What is worrisome is not just the fact that this lifestyle sounds impractical and difficult to subscribe to for many of us, but is also no longer a part of the culture and life of our indigenous brethren too. While one may feel that modern existence and the pressure of a consumer economy will neither slow down nor have the space for people like Masthi, we need to contemplate and think on how we can integrate this paradigm into our everyday lives. For without it, sustainable development will only remain a slogan that is bandied about in international conferences and global summits.
The same article appeared in the Star of Mysore dated 26th April 2017 & can be read here:
Last week on my early morning walk, I could not resist the temptation of walking up to a middle-aged woman washing the entrance to her house. She seemed to be oblivious to any concerns of water scarcity and was pouring large quantities of precious fresh water onto the concrete walkway leading to her house. She also seemed unconcerned by the overflowing bucket she had kept under the tap from which she was drawing the water. I succumbed to the activist in me and I asked her if she could avoid wasting so much water. And bang came her reply… ‘Who was I to even come up to her so early in the morning and give her this unsolicited advice? Why was I not minding my own business? And finally, she chided me saying that it was her family which paid the water bills and it should be no concern of mine if she wasted the water or saved it’. My mind could not stop comparing this to an earlier sight that I saw of large water tankers supplying water to households in another residential of the city a few weeks ago. I stopped to talk to a driver of the truck who mentioned to me that he was bringing the water from a tube well on the H.D. Kote road and that he made at least 8-10 trips each day. His concern was that the bore-well was running out of water with the advancing summer and this would affect his daily business. Another friend who hardly notices the weather was now joyously proclaiming how happy he was sitting out on his balcony at 11 in the night a few days ago watching the skies open up and the rains come pouring down.
While what I mention seems to be an everyday occurrence for most of us, it is painful that very few understand the challenging circumstances in which we are all living. Our reservoirs are going dry, inter-state river disputes are on the rise, our forests are burning down or are chopped up by the timber mafia, the little water we have is wastefully used, and all the warning signs that nature is sending out is blissfully ignored. And our Governments are busy not thinking through long term solutions but are satisfied with fighting for funds for drought relief and sinking more and more tube-wells which seem to go deeper every year. In fact, one officer confided in me that drought relief is good to have every year for some of our bureaucrats and politicians. For, after all who keeps track of the tons of desilting that is done or the watershed projects that are undertaken or the millions of trees that are supposed to be planted year after year.
With fresh water sources being less than 2% of the water available on our planet, can something be done to ensure that we have enough of it to go around and sustain life too. And who should we hold responsible for mitigating the crisis that we have brought on ourselves. This problem which seems insurmountable is not so difficult to tackle if we take earnest steps right away. The time to solve the crisis is now and the people to solve them are each one of us. As a starter, we can all resolve not to use fresh water for cleaning our pavements and courtyards; have a bath from water in the bucket rather than take a shower; ensure all our taps are properly shut and are not dripping; use little or no water to clean our cars; to put up rain water harvesting structures in our homes; and to plant, protect and nurture at least 2 saplings around our house. The Government also cannot be allowed to go unaccountable for what it is doing or not doing. We need to make sure that the forest department is held accountable not just for raising nurseries or planting trees but are measured by the 5-year survival rate of the trees that they plant. The bureaucrats and politicians need to come up with comprehensive policies that address multiple dimensions of the environment like increasing the green cover, protecting our water bodies, controlling pollution, managing waste, regulating sand mining, protecting our forests and controlling human-forest interactions. They need to address the challenge of balancing the use of water for human & domestic consumption, agriculture & irrigation, power generation and industrial use. More importantly the Government needs to think out of the box and explore possibilities of putting up desalination plants, setting up of recycling units for water re-usage and running campaigns for changing human behaviors, especially of people living in urban areas. Finally, we need to remember that this battle cannot be fought alone. No one individual or agency can do enough on their own. What we need is a concerted effort from an ecologically sensitive government, conscientious industries and a well informed and participatory citizenry. Together, we can not only ensure we have enough water resources for ourselves but also for our future generations. Let us start acting now!
Read this article which appeared in the Star of Mysore on Wed, 12th April 2017 here:
Many years ago, I ran chasing young Manjula (whom I used to fondly call Chikkaputti), a 7-year-old Jenukuruba tribal girl. She was determined to escape being caught and was trying her desperate best to avoid coming to our school. Not someone who would give up easily, I went after her as she took flight into the forest by jumping over the shallow trench separating the school form the neighbouring Bandipur National Park. After 15 minutes of this cat and mouse game, Chikkaputti finally decided that she had troubled me enough and allowed herself to be caught and brought back to the school. I still vividly remember the many times we enacted this drama that would leave me bleeding from the many scratches and bruises that the local shrubs left me with. Chikkaputti did go on to finish her schooling and outdid herself. She was one of the first Jenukuruba (considered a Primitive and Vulnerable Tribal Group in India) persons to complete her 10th standard and was a natural artist. She could paint and sketch astounding images, all from her memory. She decided to put on hold her studies for a few years and asked to work in our own school as a teacher. I still remember her trying to convince me why it was important for her to work now rather than go on and study. She wanted to take care of her single mother and her family and also save some money for her future educational needs. After a few years, she wanted to study and we got her into a good art school in Mysore. Dr Vasantha, one of SVYM’s friend and well-wisher agreed to play host and asked Chikkaputti to stay with her during her studies. Chikkaputti not only went to acquire a professional qualification in art and painting but also did very well in her final exams at the state level.
Unlike many of her contemporaries who still sought the support and network of SVYM to find jobs, Chikkaputti went on to find a job as a teacher in a school in Mysuru city. She also married a person of her choice and settled down in Mysuru itself. It was a few days ago that she called me asking me for help. I was happy to learn that she now had 2 little children and was keen on getting her first child aged 6 years admitted to a good school in Mysuru. Here was this young woman lecturing me on the importance of education and what a good school would mean to her child. When I asked her to use the RTE and apply to neighborhood schools for free education, her spontaneous response was that she did not need any support or subsidy for her children and could afford to send them to school on her own. What a long way she had come indeed from her life as a rebellious young girl wanting to avoid school at any cost to finding a good school for her children, whatever the price it entailed. As I sat reflecting on her and how she had shaped her life, I was left wondering what had actually changed – was it her social and economic mobility that had changed her focus towards schooling and education? Or was it the peer pressure of her neighbors and friends who all lived in Mysore and for whom schooling was a natural step in the phase of growing up. Or was she seeking a sense of security for her children that schooling usually brings along. Whatever the reasons may be, Chikkaputti is part of the new India that is rising. She belongs to a generation that is no longer satisfied with the status quo and are constantly seeking to better their lives. All people like her need are opportunities and not doles that the state thinks the poor and marginalized need.
A friend sent me the link of this radio interview that I had given many years ago to Ms Indu Ramesh, a senior radio journalist, friend and well wisher.
Many of us use the phrase ‘being moved’…. It could be by a event or a person or a book that we read or a movie that we see…The impact of this phrase hit me fully a few days ago when I was in Hosahalli to attend the 27th Annual School day of Viveka Tribal Center for Learning (VTCL). I had woken up that morning with a bad viral flu and was unsure if I could make the 2-hour drive from Mysore. Dr Ramkumar, the head of the education program at Hosahalli was keen that I come. This was also because the students and teachers were together staging a play based on the history of the school. The play was based on chosen anecdotes from my book ‘Hosa Kanasu’ in Kannada. Pumping myself with an assortment of pharmaceutical agents, I reached the school in time for the evening event.
VTCL and Hosahalli has always had a special place in my heart. This was the place that I spent most of my time from 1988 to 2000. I still carry fond memories of not just building the infrastructure but also filling the school with its soul along with close colleagues whose friendship I cherish till this date. This was also the time when we faced our adversities with the greatest amount of bonding amongst the SVYM team. As I sat nostalgically recollecting the days, I must mention that I was totally unprepared for the drama that the children enacted. Over 40 minutes they literally relived my life of those days. From setting up the school based on the Kanchi Shankaracharya’s suggestion, to the cow gifted by Swami Sureshanandaji – the play had everything. Anecdotes of little Manju sharing his afternoon meal with his sister Sunanda; of Jadiya’s argument with me; to Muddiah convincing me to offer the traditional appeasements of tobacco and country liquor to the ‘spirits’ – so much was told in so little time. As I sat watching the play, I was transported in time…. all the events of those days came rushing in. The people I had befriended, the elderly ‘yajamanas’ (tribal chieftains) who had become my friends and guides and the colleagues who had given so much of their lives for this cause. Though I was forewarned that I would have to join the children on stage for the final climax, I was completely unprepared for the same. The full import of the emotions of the movement descended on me and I found myself moved beyond belief. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks and I just could not fathom how much inside me was getting moved. I could hardly speak on stage and I quickly left after mumbling a few sentences on what the school meant to me.
I forced myself to have small talk with people in the vehicle on the journey back home hoping that it would somehow reduce the heightened emotions with me. But this is not to be. Two days down the line, it seems very clear to me. Amongst the many things that I have done in my life and with my life, the Hosahalli school will remain special. It is here that I was truly schooled in the understanding of human development and the nuances of educating the educated indigenous tribal children. It was here that l learnt that giving love was the surest way of receiving it in plenty. And it was here that I made some life long friends. Hosahalli is not just a school to me…it is a place of pilgrimage which taught me how to be human and how to go beyond it too.
Parliament has come to a stand still and we are seeing no business being transacted in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. I am sure many of us are anguished and pained that our parliamentarians are letting us down. I have had many of my friends express this to me and plead helplessness. Democracy will be the tamasha that is has become in India, only when we, the people allow it to be. Just because our parliamentarians have forgotten their primary accountability is to you and me doesn’t mean that we cannot hold ourselves accountable to being a good citizen. We need to engage and ensure that they hear our voices….Let our fight against ‘voice poverty’ begin today and let us write to everyone concerned – the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Chair of the Rajya Sabha, to the Prime Minister, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, the Presidents of all political parties and demand that they start expressing their views in the spirit of democracy through debate and dialogue within the house. After all, they claim to represent our voices and let us get them to first hear and understand what our ‘VOICES’ are….Below are samples of letters that I recently sent to Ms Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker of the Lok Sabha and Ms Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress. If you believe that you want to make a difference; if you are a concerned Indian Citizen; the time to act is now…Begin with engaging with the people out there and let them know of your concerns. Begin by writing to them, emailing them, calling them and letting them know that they exist only because of us and they are paid to perform, they are elected to represent us and finally they are the servants of ‘we the people’.
PS: All email ids of elected parliamentarians can be sources on the websites of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha
Karnataka’s health care system: The english version of the article that appeared in Prajavani, dtd 21 Nov 16
Karnataka state recently celebrated the 61st Rajyotsava day on November 1st. While the state has made great strides in different areas of human endeavor, one needs to use this occasion to learn from the past and think through and strategize for the next 40 years. One of the critical elements for the progress of any state or country is the status of health of its citizens. It is here that we need to understand that the state of Karnataka could have done better keeping in mind what we as a people and a state are capable of. The human capital of the state is extremely critical for overall progress and we need to ensure that public expenditures from the current levels of less than 1% today is substantially increased. The State needs a health policy that is evolved from a systems thinking and an approach that takes into account all elements of the health care eco-system in order to ensure health care of its citizens decades from now.
De-medicalizing the health care system: Medical care is only a sub-set of health care and the perspective and practice that medical professionals should be at the helm of all health programs must be changed. Health is an area which has ample scope and in dire need for non-medical professionals with different skills and knowledge to participate in. For instance, a campaign on safe drinking water could be better managed and led by officers with skills in mass communication and in handling logistical challenges than physicians. ‘De-medicalization’ of health care by introducing people from disciplines and backgrounds in the ambit of public health must be a priority. This move can solve the problem of shortage of doctors while at the same time bring down the cost of providing health care too. The state should also consider bringing in an alternate model of training Physician Assistants who can be an intermediary service provider and reduce the dependency on a clinician.
Promotion of Integrative medicine: There are more than 70,000 traditional healers in Karnataka and the State’s health care delivery system must be based on knowledge that is inherently embedded in communities. We must look at traditional medicine systems and practices of AYUSH at par with other systems of medicine like Allopathy. Mutual respect for different streams of medicine with a view to genuinely understand the strengths and limitations must be promoted at all levels. Instead of having separate hospitals and health centers for Allopathy and Ayurveda, the state should start having Centers that promote and practice Integrative Medicine.
Streamlining Insurance Schemes: Schemes and programs towards making health care accessible to poorer sections of our population through insurance coverage have been introduced over the past years. However studies indicate that the poor families still have to bear out-of-pocket expenses and not all ailments are fully covered. There are evidences of gaps in pro-poor targeting mechanisms of programs such as Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana and Yashasvini Scheme. This indicates that health coverage is implemented primarily from an insurance provider perspective and not the user’s perspective. Health coverage schemes must be designed with ‘eliminating the possibility of any individual being denied medical treatment for want of funds’ as their core objective and multiple insurance schemes of the state must be integrated into one master scheme.
Addressing regional disparities: Despite the efforts of the Govt., we still lack equitable distribution of health care services and regional disparities exist at all levels. Planning mechanisms must take into account disease burdens and other health characteristics of the districts or regions so that the resultant plans reflect the disaggregated focus that allows lagging or vulnerable districts to improve. A change in the funding pattern to the districts is needed, especially in terms of moving away from ‘facility-based’ funding to ‘need-based’ funding. As a result of facility-based funding, districts with greater needs and lesser facilities end up getting lesser funds than districts with lesser needs but higher number of facilities. The southern districts of the state have more than the required number of PHCs while the northern ones have significantly lesser numbers. Rationalizing the location of the PHCs based on the population and usage criteria will help reduce the inequity in infrastructure and also bring down the total number of PHCs from 2200 today to the required number of 1750.
Limiting the ‘verticalization’ of health department: We must put an end to the process and practice of creating disease-focused verticals in the health department and adopt an integrated approach to disease control. While there is no denying that prevention and control of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, TB, Malaria, etc. are huge challenges on their own and special emphasis is needed on them, disease-focused programs also create functional and administrative stress on a system. Disease control mechanisms can be effective only when convergence is established at the macro level and implemented through the existing primary care delivery system.
Strengthening community monitoring: The National Health Mission places a great emphasis on community participation in health, but the efforts to support it on the ground is a mixed affair. There is evidence to suggest that a sustained effort in strengthening community monitoring results in greater transparency and accountability at the grassroots level and generates local, cost-effective solutions to issues. Community monitoring and social accountability processes must go beyond the customary lip-service and should be integrated into the health care system itself.
Preparing for the ageing population: Currently, India can boast of its demographic dividend, but the increase of ageing population resulting in higher dependency ratios are a prospect Karnataka will face in the not-so-distant future. The burden of non-communicable diseases is also increasing and this coupled with the problems of aging needs special focus and attention.
Emphasis on Palliative Care: Palliative care is also a huge public health challenge and the recently announced Palliative care policy is a welcome move. One must recognize that palliative care is not just cancer care, but includes all chronic, incurable and progressive neurological, cardiac, respiratory, AIDS and other diseases. With the rise in ageing population, patients needing palliative care will only increase and the public health care delivery system must be prepared for this.
Integrating mental health into mainstream public health: WHO has predicted that 20% of the state’s population will suffer from some form of mental illness by 2020. There is a great need for pooling together resources to address mental health issues, awareness creation, and capacity building both in terms of curative and preventive aspects as well as breaking taboos and stigma.
Reforms and regulation of private sector participation in health: With less than 20% of infrastructure in their hands, private medical establishments are catering to more than 60% of people in need of medical care. This poses a huge quality challenge and appropriate regulation of the private sector accompanied by strengthening of public health care institutions is needed. At the same time, private sector contribution to health care must not be undermined and efforts must be made to include private sector players in dialogues on the nation’s health priorities and enhance their role in addressing the same.
A good policy with a long term strategic focus will be meaningless if the existing system is not geared up to deliver on the same. The capacities of the people in the public health system needs to be built and people should be held accountable for not delivering on key milestones that will have to be fixed for the short, medium and long terms. The need of the hour is to have an Ombudsman who can oversee and monitor this and ensure that the future of the people is both healthy and in safe hands.