A group of young girls huddle around a projector screen in a small community centre in Kolkata, India. A few hundred metres away, over a thousand women sell themselves for as little as 200 rupees (£2.50) to a man at least ten times a day in Munshiganj, one of the city’s many red-light districts.
Across India, massive rural-urban migration, sexually deprived young men, and high rates of female infanticide have resulted in an insatiable demand for young sex workers and forced marriages.
The girls and women in the centre are victims or prime targets of the sex industry. Many of the girls’ mothers are local sex workers trapped by debts and poverty. The girls, aged 9 to 16, have been taught they’re worth less than men their entire lives and they’re at high risk of being forced into prostitution by human traffickers, pimps or even their own families.
But social workers are teaching them a simple thing – they can fight back.
The girls are being taught about gender oppression and global feminist movements. The film Dangal is a feminist Bollywood film about a wrestler who trains his two daughters to fight men in local competitions. When the wrestler’s daughters initially line up to fight with the village’s men they’re not taken seriously and the men smirk. But the girl’s quickly shatter any notion that women are worth less than men.
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Dharavi is a 550-acre slum, a maze of corrugated iron and open sewers at the heart of India’s financial capital, Mumbai.
It is one of the most densely populated places on earth with population of roughly one million people.
A casual observer would see nothing but poverty, misery and squalor but look closer and you’ll find that the slum is the unlikely home of a recycling industry with efficiency levels reportedly higher than the UK’s.
For those struggling to survive, there is value in almost anything and nothing goes to waste. Prince Charles once even said that the slum, made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire, was a model for the world in terms of sustainability.
Over the decades, Bollywood has sold an image of Mumbai as the ‘City of Dreams’, and people from all corners of the subcontinent have travelled to the city in search of a better life. The large majority of them end up in slums, like Dharavi.
This huge rural to urban migration has catapulted Mumbai, once a small British trading port, into the global league of megacity, with an eyewatering population of 21m (Greater Manchester’s population is 2.8m).
The problems that come with such a population are immense. Simply delivering electricity, sanitary provisions and clean water to the population is a mammoth task. But there’s one problem that stands out everywhere in India – rubbish.
In India, the handling of waste is considered a huge social taboo.
Historically, the lowest ranks of the Hindu caste system have been left to deal with waste disposal and many will still consider a person low and dirty if they handle more than the bare minimum of waste. Consequently, waste is dumped everywhere — in the streets, in the sea or behind homes.
Mumbai is no stranger to the problem. Every day the city will produce a veritable mountain of over 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste.
This will be collected in large part by an army of 120,000 rag-pickers – unofficial waste collectors – who will take anything reusable they find to Dharavi and its famed 13thcompound.
They will sell their waste by the kilo to the hundreds of small recycling plants, and a kilogram of plastic bottles might be worth 15p.
The waste will then be processed by thousands of workers employed by the scrap masters. Dozens of plastic variations will be skilfully sorted into piles. These piles will be melted down in huge vats before being broken up into tiny reusable pellets. Metals and E-Waste will be broken down and sold for scrap or reusable parts.
In this way, it’s estimated that 80 per cent of the Mumbai’s solid waste is recycled into usable materials. The UK’s recycling rate was almost half that, with just under 45 per cent of household waste recycled in 2015.
Politicians are well aware that the slum’s work is essential. Situated in the centre of Mumbai, Dharavi sprawls across some of the most desirable real-estate in Asia.
Small cuts and wounds quickly become infected as workers sift through medical waste and other biohazardous substances.
Rag-pickers and recyclers hail mainly from the lower rungs of India’s caste system and struggle to gain formal recognition from the authorities.
“Most of the waste pickers in Mumbai are either women or children and they live and work under the most distressing conditions,” says Vimlendu Jha, director of environmental NGO Swechha.
“[They’ll be] harassed by the police for not having a proof of identity. Their contribution is never acknowledged.
“There is no clear policy to protect their rights or provide better conditions. The government doesn’t even acknowledge they exist.”
Several months ago, I found myself traipsing through India’s capital in search of French cheese. Foolishly I had agreed to supply some for an expat friend’s dinner party.
After several dead-end leads, I ended up in one of the Delhi’s gentrified hotspots. A refuge for the Delhiite intelligentsia in the south of the city, Khan Market is filled with posh brands, swanky jazz bars and artisan coffee houses. And there, in a quaint grocery store filled with olive oils, imported beers and Italian biscuits, I found it: a small selection of camembert and brie. It was priced at around £10.
That, I worked out, was over three times the daily wage of your average Delhiite. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I left the gentrified bubble, walking down the semi cobbled streets towards the nearest metro station. A hundred yards down the road I passed a ragpicker girl dragging a large bag of plastic bottles behind her. She had no shoes, and her hair was matted with filth.
A ragpicker is a waste collector, employed unofficially by the neighbourhood or the local administration to deal with the thousands of tonnes of waste that are dumped onto the streets every day. For their back breaking 12 hour shifts they’ll be paid around £1.50. To buy a soft drink in one of those fancy bars, this girl would have had to work for two days without food. The cheese would have taken her over a week. I felt ashamed for having even considered it.
Say what you want about the social woes of gentrification in the West, it’s nothing compared to Delhi or Mumbai.
MIRACLES AND DIVISION
Over the last two decades, India’s economy has boomed, in what many commentators have hailed as an economic miracle. Fuelled by tech, textiles, two wheelers and never-ending construction, the great Indian Elephant is finally shaking off the wounds of imperialism and decades of bureaucratic mismanagement to emerge as a global power.
Today India is the fastest growing economy in the world: according to Deutsche Bank research, there are now around 300m middle-class Indians out of a population of 1.3bn. Economic migrants have flocked to the political capital from right across the subcontinent, with Delhi now boasting a population of around 25m: equivalent to around half of England.
But wealth has never been shared equally in India, and in-between the roar of Delhi’s traffic and grinding poverty of malnourished millions, you’ll find small pockets of absurd gentrification and wealth. In Delhi districts like Khan Market, Lodhi Colony, Meherchand Market and the famous Haus Khas Village, or areas like Bandra and Churchgate in Mumbai, you’ll find a version of India with a distinctive Williamsburg or Shoreditch air: popup stores, craft beers, soy lattes, mac books and fashionably trimmed moustaches galore. It’s true, the gentrification is limited – but what it lacks in size it makes up for in absurdity, given what surrounds it.
In the UK gentrification causes social division – there’s no doubt about that. But house prices aside, just about anyone in London could partake of the wonders of Shoreditch. In Delhi and Mumbai, that just isn’t true.
Make no mistake about it, India has made strong moves to eradicate poverty. In 2015, 12.4 per cent of the population – 170m people – lived below the poverty line, defined as $1.90 a day. That sounds like a lot, but it’s down from a staggering 45.3 per cent as recently as 1993.
But the fact remains that, in Delhi, young professionals in search of a bit of edge can escape into another world – one which the street cleaner outsider will never in their wildest dreams be able to enter.
(The bay of Naples: iStock)
Of course, you’d expect the ancient city of Napoli, the home of pizza and the Camorra crime syndicate, to have a slightly rough and ready feel to it. But from reading the headlines and listening to a few middle-class tales you’d be forgiven for thinking you were going to be an extra in ultra-violent TV series, Gomorrah. As I discovered on my recent trip there, a holiday in Naples is really nothing to be afraid of.
We might have a chuckle at their economy, but the truth is the Italians can’t build a bad city. Rome, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Bologna, Sienna, Milan, Genoa, Turin and fair Verona. The list goes on and makes England look like the grand colony of Croydon.
Set against the might of Vesuvius, Naples is no different. The city oozes history, charm and adventure as much as it does mozzarella. The mafia are still very much a going concern, but things have improved a great deal on that front, at least according to our host – the wonderful Vincenzo.
You can lose yourself for hours wandering through the winding cobbled roads. Around almost every corner they’ll be something new; a stunningly indulgent baroque church, a wonderful piazza lined with busy espresso bars or a group of aging nuns quietly wandering home. If there were any mafia gangsters out doing a spot of menacing, I didn’t spy them (Vincenzo tells me most of them now work in civic administration)
Yes, some of the buildings are dilapidated and the streets’ ubiquitous graffiti could do with a serious clean. But you’ll quickly forgive any sordidness as you walk out of the tight streets and see the brilliant blue of the bay of Naples. Cracks and all, there is a timeless class and romance to the city.
I mean, who doesn’t secretly have ambitions of one day being an old Italian man in tailored suit, puffing a cigarette in the warm sea breeze while flicking through the Corriere dello Sport?
Inevitably, there’s a downside. If you jump in a cab, you can expect to be conned for the northern European you are. Our taxi driver from the airport, a charming, bumbling man, did every single Italian gesticulation possible as he tried to convince us that the price for the journey was twice what it said on the metre.
The Italians will lay the foundations of the western world for you. They’ll give you Michelangelo, Pavarotti and the Dolce Vita, but they will not on any accounts stoop to clear up their chihuahua mess. No, that’ll be yours to slip on as you narrowly avoid being run over by a tipsy teenager on a battered Lambretta.
In all seriousness, Kolkata is the only place in the world where I’ve found it more stressful to cross a road. The narrow, winding streets and high buildings make even the most pathetic motorised specimen sound like a Ferrari roaring within inches of your family.
The traffic can be dodgy, but then there’s nothing more entertaining than watching your father ticking off a young Italian man for not learning the English highway code, turning to you afterwards and yelling, ‘They’re all bloody mad!’ Maybe the Neapolitans are, but they sure as hell know how to live.
(See relevant pictures in Spectator article)
Much has been said about the endless photographic mediocrity of the digital age. The infinite glossy ads, the stream of cheap tourist snaps and sea of selfies. You’d forgive a young photographer for feeling disillusioned. In a world where 2 billion images are uploaded to the internet every day, how can you ever be original? What power is there even left in photography?
Spread over the east and west wings of Somerset House, the Sony World Photo Awards (open until 7 May) answers these questions at full tilt.
The pictures in this mammoth exhibition were selected from over 220,000 online entries from 183 countries – amateur and professional. As an add-on, there’s a collection of work by famed British photographer Martin Parr.
Walking through the gallery, you’d be stretched to find something which didn’t move you in some way. The incredible spectrum of human experience on display is humbling enough.
Dario Mitidieri’s simple yet haunting ‘Lost Family Portraits’ hit you head on. In the middle of a Lebanese refugee camp, Syrian families stand against a black screen. From their expressions, you can see their spirit is almost broken – beside them are empty seats where their loved ones should be.
Photography and film can inspire human empathy for another’s suffering in a way no other medium can. But over the last five years, the world has been bombarded with so many appalling images of the Syrian conflict that many people are simply numbed to a war that seems so far away. What’s so wonderful about Mitidieri’s family photos is their subtlety. There is no horrific violence just broken families and emptiness. You could so easily substitute your own family into the frame, and ask the dreadful question, who’s missing?
Another inspirational series is Yuan Peng’s photo story of two tiny Chinese sisters undergoing the brutal training to be future Olympic gymnasts. For his efforts, he won first prize in the professional sports category of the Photo Awards. Stand in front of his huge prints and you can see why. In one appalling shot one of the twins is bent head over heel, her neck is bent almost 90 degrees backwards and her small face screwed up in pain as the trainer bends her past her limit. In the instant before her toes touch the floor in front of her face, you want to scream ‘stop’ and tackle the trainer before he snaps her in two.
Ralph Gräf won the coveted place of best travel photo of the year against countless globetrotters with a picture many of us have seen before in endless Hollywood movies. In his shot, somewhere in the vastness of North America, a simple red 4×4 turns off an empty highway into a gas station café. No exotic subject matter – no Indian masses, Vietnamese fishermen or Siberian herdsmen – but somehow the shot is so perfectly composed, so full of symmetry, that it looks like it’s been painted.
Surprisingly the highest award of photographer of the year didn’t go to some war-hardened photojournalist fresh from the battlefields of Middle East, but to a Belgium man doggedly in pursuit of a simple thing: snow. For Frederik Buyckx’s stunning ‘Whiteout’ series, he travelled across Scandinavia, the Balkans and Central Asia in search of breath-taking ethereal white landscapes. In his most powerful shot, somewhere in the cold wilderness, a donkey collapses from exhaustion. There is a deathly calm in his black and white shots – an absolute brilliance to the bleak landscape.
The exhibition can’t be recommended enough. Without a doubt you’ll leave inspired, knowing that in the age of the smartphone, mediocrity is not king.
At the school for the country’s elite, a British headmaster strives to eliminate elitism
A near-perfect rendition of Schubert’s ‘Impromptus’ rings out of the music room’s colonial-era windows, the sound carrying all through the school’s pristine grounds. Even in India, a country famed for its sharp inequalities, there are few places where privilege is so obvious. Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Doon School, a private boarding school for boys aged 12 to 18, is probably India’s most elite institution.
A short walk away from the school’s main gate, children live in slums plagued by dengue fever. But here you’ll find a campus which last year won a Unesco award for cultural heritage conservation, one equipped with its very own hospital. Although the school rejects the label, there’s a good reason that many describe it as the ‘Eton of India’. Here, heirs to business empires brush shoulders with the sons of India’s political elite. Their names are put down for the school as soon as they’re born, leading to admission tests which are held in seven cities.
Founded by an Indian lawyer in 1935, the Doon School’s mission is clear and unashamedly elitist. The words of the first headmaster, Arthur E. Foot — a former Eton ‘beak’ and a relative of former Labour party leader Michael Foot — are inscribed on the wall of the foyer. The school will create an ‘aristocracy of service’ to lead a free, democratic and secular India.
‘There are very few schools in the world that have set themselves that kind of mission and have actually achieved it’, says Matthew Raggett, the current headmaster and also a Briton.
From politics, industry and banking to journalism and the military, the school’s alumni have left their mark on modern India. In the 1990s the Economist reported that after Harvard Business School, the Doon School’s alumni network was the strongest in the world. The ‘Doscos’, as old boys are known, go on to dominate public life.
The Times of India, India Today, the Hindustan Times and key Indian news channels have all been led by Doscos. Two key figures of South Asian literature, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, were editors of the school paper, the Doon Weekly. Seven generals went to Doon, plus a handful of air marshals and admirals for good measure. The career of world-famous sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor, who designed the Orbit Tower at London’s Olympic Park, can be traced back to the school’s art department.
But the school’s most famous alumnus was former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. When he unexpectedly came to power in 1984, he rallied a group of his old school chums to lead the country. Together they became known as the ‘Doon Cabinet’.
Though they may go on to great things, during their time at the Doon, boys lead a spartan existence. ‘Back in the 1930s, a Maharaja’s son came to the school on an elephant with his whole royal entourage,’ says the deputy head master. ‘They had to tell him to leave everything behind. Equality is important here.’
The school ethos centres around four values: egalitarianism, secularism, service and democracy. In many ways, these values reflect the founding ideals of the Indian National Congress party, which at the school’s formation was the dominant political force in the country.
In the dying days of the British Raj it was thought that if India and the new Indian elite did not hold true to these ideals, the nation would disintegrate. So these values are hammered into the boys at every turn.
Each student gets one locker and a row of hooks. Clothing is all identical — right down to the football boots. At neighbouring schools it’s not unheard of for boys to bribe guards to bring in drugs and prostitutes. Doon, by contrast, is a completely cashless society.
On my tour, the teachers proudly point towards a large airless dorm room with 20 beds arranged in rows. Several boys lie across their mattresses, exhausted in the stifling midday humidity.
The deputy tells me: ‘Unlike other private boarding schools we don’t give our students a luxurious time… It’s character-building.’
Of the school’s ten headmasters, five have been British — a surprising statistic at a school which serves as a training ground for the post-colonial elite. Matthew Raggett was appointed last year and he has an ambitious agenda.
‘The irony of being the only British guy in the school presiding over the celebrations for Indian Independence Day was just hilarious,’ he says.
Silhouetted against the croquet lawn, the new headmaster serves Twinings tea and samosas. Though dressed for the weather in cargo shorts, he strikes an impressive figure as he sits on his veranda and talks candidly about the school’s past successes and current flaws.
‘It’s difficult to take the elitism out of the kids when some of them can go home to so much luxury,’ he says. ‘I think what they do appreciate is that an air of entitlement isn’t appealing.
‘There are things called “favours” here,’ he continues. ‘Older boys ask younger boys to collect a morning snack. Collect my football boots. Come and give me a massage during the swimming competition. I’ve seen it.’
‘There’s a notion here that as a prefect you get “favours” done for you, and you can administer punishments, without really understanding what that says about your leadership position. That needs to change.
‘It’s the abuse of power, and the imbalance of power that’s not right. And it’s understanding that. But again it’s difficult. Because we’re in a culture which is so servant-based.’
‘This is a school for the future leaders of India.’ Raggett gestures behind him. ‘Outside that wall, this is still a country that operates on power and prestige.’
Given the country’s huge population, India’s education system relies heavily on exam performance. With their futures hanging on as little as half a mark, many students will spend any free time they have cramming in tutoring centres.
The result, says Raggett, is a tendency for Indian students to be strong at rote learning and regurgitating information, but weak in many other respects. This, he believes, is a huge shame.
‘Being a new democracy there’s a culture of good argument here; students have an opinion or thought on just about everything. And in six years’ time, we’ll have a different curriculum which will lead to critical thinking… and a recognition that the world isn’t black and white. ’
Honoured to have my photo of a poor ragpicker girl in Delhi selected as one of Al Jazeera’a best photos of 2016.
Photo: William Brown for AJE ••• Every day Delhi produces around 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste – roughly the weight of the Eiffel Tower. Official estimates predict that in 5 years the waste produced by the city will almost double to 18,000 tonnes a day. Bhalswa landfill towers above its surroundings. At 50 metres high and 40 acres across, it is a flaming mountain of decomposing waste. Due to social stigma across India, rag pickers face terrible discrimination and communities are often blighted by alcoholism, literacy and drug abuse. Campaigners say many of the children working on the municipal sites in Delhi are orphans or separated and thus highly vulnerable to sexual abuse or being trafficked into sex slavery.
India’s rupee recall appears to have had “a massive impact” on the country’s human trafficking industry, according to advocacy and rescue groups, with some reporting reductions of up to 90% in the number of women and girls being admitted to their shelters.
But other activists said the illegal trade was already rebounding, and that the financial strain of demonetisation on poor communities was pushing new, younger girls into sex work, and forcing women already in the industry to work for credit or for free.
The Guardian contacted 10 human trafficking advocacy and rescue groups to assess the impact of the Indian government’s shock decision last month to scrap the country’s two most used bank notes.
Demonetisation complicated every point in the human trafficking supply chain, starting with a “drastic reduction in the number of sex buyers”, said Sunita Krishnan, the co-founder of Prajwala, a Hyderabad-based NGO that rescues victims of sex slavery.
The dearth of customers for sex workers meant “it obviously did not make any sense to induct any new girls in this period”, Krishnan said. “In my shelter home, on average every month 60 to 70 new, rescued victims are admitted. From 8 November [the day demonetisation was announced] in the last 40 days, only six new victims have been admitted.
“I have been on this mission for more than two decades, and this is the first time I’ve seen the entire flesh trade so badly affected.”
Ashok Rajgor, the chief investigation officer at the Rescue Foundation, said no formal surveys had been conducted, “but our operatives in the field have noticed a sharp change”.
Fewer customers for brothels meant that traffickers had less capital to buy and transport women and girls from states such as Jharkhand, Assam and Bihar, all hubs for the trade.
“The market is totally down,” he said. “When you buy a girl, it’s a huge amount of money, maybe 200,000 rupees. It’s really big money and nowadays it’s very difficult to get that kind of cash.”
But he added: “The traffickers will look for other options. It’s too early to say how, but they’ll manage.”
The introduction of a new 2,000-rupee note, while supplies of small change remained scarce, had distorted the market, making younger girls more vulnerable, said Ruchira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, an NGO that works with women across Bihar and in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.
“The demand for younger girls is going up,” Gupta said. “Now that [they] have only 2,000 rupee notes, clients don’t want older women, they want virgins and underage girls.”
She said the financial impact of demonetisation had left some women without enough money to buy food and their daughters at risk of being pushed into sex work.
Pimps, who in some red-light districts will take up to 70% of what a sex worker is paid, were beginning to force women to work for credit, she added.
“Women’s debt is increasing. Where we work in [the Delhi red light district] GB Road, I’m being told that brothel managers have started to keep log books, promising to pay the women later,” she said. “These women are being asked to work for free. They have to sleep with as many man as the pimps say just to have a bed and a meal.”
Other women were paid in old, invalid 500 rupee notes. “And the pimps are forcing them to take the money. [The women] have to stand at the bank for hours ever day [to exchange or deposit the notes]. Their income has been dramatically reduced,” she said.
Swati Maliwal, the head of the Delhi Commission for Women, which has been campaigning to have GB Road shut down and the women working there retrained, said her teams had observed similar phenomena. “The exploitation of women on GB Road has increased tremendously because men are coming and not paying them properly,” she said, adding that some women had started sleeping with up to 30 men each day to make ends meet.
Often, trafficked women lacked the identity papers required to set up a bank account to exchange void currency for new notes – meaning some had seen their cash savings wiped out, said Urmi Basu, head of the Kolkata-based New Light Foundation. “There are thousands of women who have no documentation, no bank accounts, apart from a few hundred rupees they tuck under their blouses,” she said.
A “very big slowdown” had been observed in the child labour trade, said Rakesh Singhal, from the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
He said his organisation – whose founder, Kailash Satyarthi, won the Nobel peace prize in 2014 for his work – had commissioned a study of the impact of demonetisation on the industry.
“But we have observations that show a very big slowdown,” Singhal said. “Most of the placement agencies for children say there is no domestic child labour supply.
“The whole trafficking industry runs on liquid money, you’re paying the whole supply chain, including agents in village areas, who are paying between 5,000 and 10,000 rupees for each child.”
All agreed the decline in the trade was likely to be temporary. “Trafficking is an organised crime, and traffickers and people involved in this crime adapt to newer means whenever there is a change in situations and the external environment,” said Prabhat Kumar, the general manager of Save the Children, India.
With Michael Safi
Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters