A web of support. How people using technology to self-organize and take action after disasters is becoming commonplace.
In Mumbai, India, the poorest of the poor pay disproportionately more for their water.
Men and boys from the non-institutionalized slums of Mumbai (the ones on the periphery of the city without public taps) wake at 4 AM every morning to buy water from those who do have formal connections.
The cost of water is two rupees per 35 L jerry can when the lines start at 5 AM, but jumps up to around six rupees per can when the water from the city stops flowing. Most families need between eight and ten cans per day.
In short, those who have to buy their water each morning can spend up to 900 rupees per month. The deed holders (i.e. those who own land and have a house) have pipes from the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) at a cost of only 125 rupees per month.
Unfortunately, this appalling situation is in equilibrium, as house owners can make upwards of 3,000 rupees per day selling water to those who have to spend a significant amount of their income to get the bare minimum.
To make matters worse, the BMC would like to privatize water in the future, arguing they “lose too much money in the business.”
Here, in the slums next to Govandi and Mankhuted, “Do you get the water?” is asked each morning in place of “Hello” or “How are you?”
I left for India young, naive, and partially unprepared for the extraordinary series of events I was about to experience. My bag wasn’t packed until late the night before I left, and it didn’t hit me that I was spending three months photographing in a completely foreign country until two weeks in to the journey. By not thinking too much about it, and being entirely focused on what I was trying achieve, I think it was better this way.
Nike has the motto, “Just do it.” Cliche, yes, but it is one which wholly encompasses every lesson I learned while traveling to capture a story on the cultural, social, and religious constraints to clean water access in India. Always do what you’re most in fear of. Feel uncomfortable shooting in the crowds of Magh Mela, the largest annual Hindu gathering on the banks of the Ganges? Just do it. Uneasy about experiencing poverty in the worst slums of south East Asia? Just do it. Worried about the security situation in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan? Just do it. The first situation I wimped out on, a hundred thousand people in one stretch of river sounds like a lot of bodies, but it’s been at the back of my mind ever since.
Of course, any advice I make should be taken with a grain of salt. Pushing boundaries just isn’t for some people. For all the others, though, keep doing it.
Being a networking madman also has its advantages in putting together a story. If you see an opportunity to shoot something you hadn’t thought of before, take it. Don’t hesitate. It’s difficult to do in an alien environment, especially when you would like everything to be normal, planned out, and calm, but certainly worth the effort. Furthermore, tying journalism with development also will score you a number of connections, particularly in India. The people behind the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are generally more than happy to talk to you about the issues they are combating. The government, not so much.
With all of that being said, there are a number of things I’ll be making happen next time.
For one, rethinking my adoption of technology. Oddly enough, the trip journey was partially intended to give me a 90 day hiatus from being digitally connected at all hours of the day. I made a decision to leave my MP3 player at home, which lasted until two weeks from the end when I broke down and bought a Chinese knockoff, as well as to take time off Twitter, a micro-blogging service.
Next time, I’m twittering the whole trip.
Not only is it a cool way to report interesting things you come across hour by hour, but also a cheap way to keep in contact with friends and family. The price of telecommunications is dropping quickly; to send an SMS cost Rs. 3.75 (around 10 cents) and receiving messages is free. These astounding developments allowed me to even publish my experiences as I was in the middle of the Thar Desert, an arid expanse of land on the Pakistani border.
My goal was to go light and cheap. Pack my backpack with only the things I really need, and then just take half of that. Next time probably won’t be so light or cheap. Even though I had to sell two pairs of skis and my kayak to afford this one, I would sell even more to bring a few more items:
An audio recorder. India is rich with sound. For the same reasons I brought earplugs, I need a device to archive the myriad of noise happening at all hours of the day. Every train station has a unique announcement tone unforgetable to any traveler who has spent a lengthy period of time in one, whether waiting for an afternoon city commuter or spending the night curled up on a freezing platform. Bus rides also offer the cacaphony, let it be a screech of tires as the vehicle races along a narrow, cliffside road or the horn which a driver can commonly lean upon for minutes at a time. It never ends. For this story, however, the sound of water is the most valuable component I missed. Each region has its own footprint, the tap empties in the pot to a different rhythm, the bucket clangs against the dug well to its special beat, and the conversations surrounding these activities are in their own local language. Sure, photography is rich as a visual medium, but audio definitely helps to complete the circle.
I could also have taken better interviews with a recorder by taping them instead of frantically trying to take notes.
A GPS. Also known as a global positioning system, such a device has the ability to track where you’ve been and when you were there. Of course, I can always do this manually by dropping images on the map, as I do with many of my Flickr photos, but automating the process would be a huge timesaver, as well as lowering the barrier to entry. Geo is the next big thing, and geo-aware news even more so. Tagging my images geographically would not only provide an interesting way to keep track of them, but also allow any story I create to be geographically interactive.
More memory. Duh. Sixteen gigabytes is enough to shoot for just few days tops. Stretch that over a month, and the photographer is struck with an inability to make images. I’d like to call it photographer’s block. When you have to edit on the fly, or at least while driving between locations, it makes you think twice about whether you’d like to shoot 20 or 60 frames on a particular scene. Furthermore, processing as you go doesn’t give much perspective on the set. Often when I’m in the States, I’ll go back to my images at a later point only to find I like best a photo I was close to deleting earlier. Considering I only kept a tenth of what I shot between February and March, I can only hope I didn’t kill too many Pulitzer winners. This problem of a memory shortage can easily be remedied in these ways: bringing more cards, bringing a laptop, or a combination of both. Unfortunately, these two solutions require funding. Students are often short of funding. My solution: sell more of the junk you don’t really need. Some call it minimalism; I like to call it keeping to my roots.
Quite possibly the strongest, most poignant lesson I learned was that, to last three months in a country, I need a constructive project to do. Building upon that, it is also wise to approach a country with multiple story ideas in hand. With the way my planning worked out, I was done shooting what I had outlined for the water story by the second week of April, leaving me with nearly three weeks free. I can’t stand the “tourist thing” for more than a few days. As a result, I came up with a cockeyed notion to photograph people under occupation in Kashmir and Ladakh, with the intent of comparing and contrasting the two regions. In Kashmir, there are reportedly 1.2 lakh (million) security forces for between 10 and 12 million people. On nearly every street corner, there are bunkers with intimidating soldiers, intimidating machine guns, and intimidating barbed wire. Needless to say, it has an effect on the local population.
Research beforehand might’ve helped me refine the second story enough to realise Ladakh is still covered in snowed at the time I wanted to hitchhike there by truck. For all of the regions I missed though because of access, Ladakh, the Kinnaur Valley, Pakistan, Tibet, and Bhutan, there’s always next year, right?
Onward and forward.
It’s been a long, short time since I wrote last. At the point where your life intersects completely with you work, it is quite difficult to take a moment and reflect on what you’ve accomplished. The writing in my personal journal has suffered too; only ten entries dot the pages from the last few weeks. 98.3% begin with how tired or worn out I was at the time of writing. This recount/ fictionalised drama will require a lot of thinking hard and looking back. As I have done some pretty “damn ballin’” things, as Joey would put it, maybe the narrative can be spun interesting enough.
To begin where I left off.
Traveling from Kodaikanal back to Pune for the Appropriate Technology Study Group (ATSG) ended up requiring two overnight bus rides, instead of a 28 hour train, because of the wonders of online rail booking. The first one I took dropped me on my head in Bangalore, where I was fortunate enough to spend only an hour and a half navigating the city for an 11 o’clock meeting with Vijay of Arghyam. His organization runs the India Water Portal, a project I am excited to see develop. After an hour long conversation about some of the technical aspects of our project, Daniel the masquerading altruist stuck again, first crashing their blog and then setting up syndicated subscription, RSS or email, via Feedburner. Productive afternoon for a tourist, eh?
A significant chocolate fudge chunk of the past weeks has been dedicated to achieving some sort of success with this study group. I partially documented this along the way in an update for the team and one for my faculty sponsor. It would be an understatement to say the project has been huge and there might not have been enough time planned for it; many times I would work seven to midnight one day and then do it again the next. For all of the effort involved, however, I’m immensely glad I did it. If the opportunity arises, I would surely go right back to the Kolwan Valley [Google Maps] and continue ours and everyone’s work in improving the region. The guiding research question has evolved since the beginning of the project but remains essentially the same: what are some of the socio-political constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley? Following general conclusions from the 2006 UNDP Human Development Report, the water crisis around the world is not an issue of physical availability, but rather of “power, poverty, and inequality.” Our hope for the report is to document enough of these challenges for the next organization working on water access to achieve greater success.
My first week in the valley, but without the rest of the WDA team, started an hour after I arrived at Mahindra United World College of India with a quick drive back down the hill to Sadhana Village. It was time to debrief on the surveys and start thinking about how short time planned for research should pan out. I journeyed with two MUWCI (mew-key) students, Maya and Samir, and was fortunate to hear first-hand what they and others had gained from implementing the questionnaires. It, and other anecdotal information, began my crash course on the specifics of what we were working with. Hard data was also important for understanding what the study group needed to get out of the focus groups; Sunday consisted largely of sifting through 40+ surveys to gather some insight.
This specific project, and, well, any in a foreign country, requires an extraordinary deal of spontaneous optimism and naive steadfastness. There is only so much you can prepare for at home. The mold we created for the focus groups has to be broken completely and then quickly recast to different shapes. As it turns out, it is not quite as easy to go willy-nilly through a valley and have whomever you want participate in a discussion whenever you please. Especially in India. At one point, I was even dreaming of buses for transportation to a central location, microphones and speakers for communication to large crowds, and cater meals. Oh the ambition! If that’s how it actually ended up, I’m quite sure I would’ve had a mental breakdown. The trove of information we collected in the focus groups that did come together, including ones with scheduled caste (SC) women, village elders, and school children, is proving valuable enough.
When I did have time free, I was very fortunate to be able to spend it with some of the kindest people on Earth who just happen to live in a slice of Heaven. On a couple of nights, I was treated to Nandita’s wonderful home cooking. As the head of the Triveni office at MUWCI, the study group would not be where it is today without her generous assistance; without her food, I’m not sure I could’ve survived the week of caf fare. Anat, one of the student leaders of Community Development, was the best possible host and completely set me up when I arrived. Her company, as well as from a number of other students, was a welcome relief to countless hours of organizing, planning, and mind-numbing data entry. I must also give a shout out to Ben who has given me the inspiration for what I am considering doing near the end of my little foray into to this wee-tiny country. Hopefully an engaging photo essay will come out of that.
Now is where I really have to reconstruct from memory. There is a 10 day gap in my journal because of project overdrive. It’s unfortunate WDA didn’t get much of a spring break in terms of relaxation
On Monday, 11 March, Jessie, Yukta, and Raechelle, our faculty sponsor for the project, arrived in the afternoon looking frazzled. A couple hours later, we went down to visit Mr. Deshpande and Medhathai at Sadhana Village to give them a brief introduction to the valley and go over the plan for the week ahead. A large part of the days following consisted of surveying the villages for the specifics of each regarding water systems and availability, Tim and Joey arriving, testing the water of 15 points in 11 villages for basic indicators of quality, Yukta and Joey leaving to go work on the conference, conducting even more focus groups and interviews, and synthesizing the information for a presentation of preliminary results on Sunday. It may not seem like much condensed into one sentence, but the schedule kept us well-occupied. In some ways, though, this is where I wish we had more time. Every single day gathering data was a lesson in just how many complexities there are in the valley and with any social issue. We may be able to write in generalizations for the report, but the goal of understanding the dynamics of each village completely before implementing a water access project should be the goal of any organization following up.
I will be the first to admit there are times I can be a workaholic. The lines from Bob Marley’s “Catch a Fire” resonate in my head when I think about this statement of truth. Thankfully, Tim, Jessie, and company are better grounded in reality. The lulls while they were in India included frequent dips in the MUWCI pool and walks around the Biodiversity Preserve. On a side note, I rediscovered the sheer brilliance, literally, of putting a flashlight in a cell phone when Yukta and I became stuck in Paud after dinner one night and had to walk 6 to 7 km back in the dark. Over the weekend, or rather Friday and Sunday night because Saturday was spent preparing our presentation, we did us some cultural tourism to Pune to see what Bollywood (dancing) was like. As you may be able to see on the runaway YouTube hit titled “El Ostrich meets the Robot,” I am not a dancer and Tim could be a rising star.
Only after eight short, long days in the field were we then in Mumbai for the Safe and Sustainable Water Conference. Which went alright, in my opinion. There were a lot of good things which happened, but still many I wish had; my reflection essay will likely be tens of pages long. To keep it short this time, we had an all-star cast but a significant part of the “confirmed” audience didn’t show. Even some of those who had been granted travel scholarships didn’t make it. A learning experience, for sure.
Since the WDA team left last Thursday, I’ve been off and on by myself. Part of the time, I’ve slept at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House, which offers dorm rooms at Rs. 150/night, and have had the opportunity to meet some really cool people including Ravi, a philosophy teacher in the UK, Francis, a “dude I would not think is a web designer” from Australia, and Jana, a German girl working on her Masters thesis on soil conservation in Gujarat. Conversations with them have helped ward off missing the WDA crew and yearnings for home. Last Friday, I was fortunate to go to see an exhibit titled “The Photograph: Painted, Posed, and of the Moment” organized by India Photo Now at the NGMA in Colaba. It showcased work from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Bartholomew, and the Magnum Photos group. Can I say super inspiring? I was especially struck by an image from Raghu Rai, an Indian national who is doing amazing work of his country. His image of a ship worker against the Calcutta harbor is absolutely stunning when viewed large. While in Mumbai, I also snagged a connection with Apnalaya to get a better understanding of the water access issues in the slums. Tuesday morning found me up at 445 so I could make it to the suburbs, not in the American sense, to get some images.
For meals, I’ve stuck largely with paneer makhani and naan, and then resorting to dal fry and chapaati at a local stand when I only feel like paying Rs. 25. Mumbai is a really expensive city; I will be quite glad when I am able to branch out.
With that, I embark on stage two: the north.