Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tamil Nadu, new forests, child labour

In India every day over 6,000 new cars and 100,000 new motorcycles are being bought.
In Mumbai there are more dollar millionaires than in New York.
These are a couple of statistics that rather struck me and I can see this country exploding economically. The reality is that the poorest are having as difficult a time now as they ever have and the contrast with the rich only makes this gulf all the more striking.

So many Indian NGOs have historically looked to the 'Developed' world for funding. They still do, but the need for India's own social responsibility to develop further will be more and more important as they get richer and the 'west' has to deal with more of their own problems. The many religions and sects do support the population to some extent and it may well be through these channel that this urgent evolution can be accelerated. ...That is just H having a bit of a spout...

Dindigal is the town I had planned to meet Abdaheer. He is the chap I had been corresponding with about the WeForest project in the area. Till now this journey had been about an approximate route, a few places to see and a lot of opportunistic meetings of people along the way. Pretty self indulgent and self feeding you could say.  So this was a new short phase of the trip where I was to see on the ground some actual day to day life in the workings of a great cause that resonated with the trip I was doing.

Abdaheer had kindly arranged a hotel and met me there with his colleague Farukh. It is worth saying that my timing was very selfish in that it was the first day of Diwali and like asking someone to come out on Christmas Day. They made no issue of this and said that it was really for the children, but I knew it was also a work holiday at the very least. They took me to one of their projects which was a new school for the Dalit community. They are the lowest of the low in this land and education is rarely successful via the state.
                                 The New School....ready next spring and funded largely by a German charity

I should explain that Abdaheer started his NGO whilst still at college 15 years ago, by helping to train impoverished women to earn money making clothes and the like. This expanded and The Sawed Trust now runs many projects that self enables, empowers and ultimately  enriches the poorest and most wretched in Tamil Nadu. And that tends towards the women and children. More recently his attention has broadened to include agricultural and environmental essentials. Hence the Weforest connection. Abdaheer is a remarkable social entrepreneur, who with his colleagues is giving a lot of people a much greater chance in life. The fight against cynicism and greed, set against the delight in seeing real and positive change for many, is his daily bread.

They run courses for small local farmers, which will see 40+ every week turn up to learn about new techniques and crops that will lever their circumstances very favourably. It was interesting that the clinching incentive was the free grain and fruit tree saplings that are given out after each lesson. That is what I call positive arm twisting that works because the farmers are implementing what they are learning and getting hugely increased yields.

The Classroom with Farukh at the board
Local ladies preparing tree seedling bagsAbderheer (centre) with his colleagues

On returning to the hotel, having dined on a famous Vanu Biriyani, I bumped into Mags and Joost at reception. A quickly interesting chat lead to a plan to meet for a drink a bit later. They are making a film about the horrors of the child labour in the cotton industry here. It was extraordinary to hear their tales of the tortured life these kids are put through. The lady who was helping them, would not show her face to the camera, as she would have more likely than not been killed by the mafia type bosses that run the cotton industry.

My mouth was almost on the floor by the time I had heard all this, but they seemed completely relaxed....  I then realised that they do this all the time and are well known film makers with such hits as 'Saving Africa's Witch Children' shown on Channel4 dispatches which even I had seen. is their company and they are delightful and fascinating. A fine crossing of paths from my point of view and ones that will cross again I hope.

The next day Abdaheer, Farukh and I went up onto the hills above Dindigal in the Western Ghats to visit some of the plantations that he is doing with WeForest. So far their plans are for 600 hectares of 75000 new trees and that will absorb about 10,000 tons of CO2 per annum. An average car produces about 6000kg of CO2 per annum. (in simple terms we worked out that the annual carbon absorption of the new trees would about cover one days emissions from the new cars sold daily). 1 Euro buys and plants 6 trees, so off setting one's 'footprint' does not have to be too expensive. Weforest has a €3 a month campaign that I do, which may interest those who like the idea of replanting the forests of the world; click here.

I will add the video in due course, butthis is the area that the planting is to be done.

WeForest had asked if I would write a small report for them and perhaps take some video. It became rather apparent that it would be easiest if we filmed a sort of interview covering all the topics surrounding the project. Messrs Humphreys and Paxman are very safe in their jobs, but it is a very good way of getting information across efficiently. I will post it here once the heavy edit is finished.

Before I left Dindigul, I had mentioned the need for better water proofs and Abdaheer took me to the brand new 'Selfridges' of Dindigal, which had everyone there very excited. To my mind it had more the styling and layout of a multi floor Aldi. On the top floor there was great range of rain coats etc. I was then astonished by Abdaheer as he refused to let me pay for them. My attempt at insistence started bordering on rudeness so I gave in and accepted this kind and most welcome of gifts.

Azim, Abdaheer's son on Batty, just before I left

For the next 2 days of travel, I put them on about 5 times as the cyclone reminded me that Mother Nature was boss, but I at least was dry.