Riding the Rails to Chennai

Bengaluru train station

Bengaluru train station

Chennai           Railroads are serious transportation in the giant expanse of India.  The trains are old, but reliable.  The amenities are not bare, but nonexistent, many of which are filled by hawkers jumping on from station to station selling tea, coffee, chai, samosas, hot tins of food, heaping buckets of food, purses, knickknacks, and pens, giant pens twice the normal length.

Our journey from Bengaluru to Chennai started at 3pm, scheduled to arrive in Chennai six hours later at 9pm.  We pulled off within minutes of the schedule and creeped out of the station until we were well out of the city.  This made it easier for the runners with their bags and sometimes whole families to lope across the track and jump on the train through one or the other of the open doors.  They could then stand with others until their destination or be asked off and try again on the next train.  Their predicament was not totally different from later boarders who might have bought a ticket where the station master assigned a seat without knowing or perhaps caring that someone had already purchased the seat and had been occupying it down the line for hours.  This happened frequently and enlivened the trip for some.



Suresh at the start

Suresh at the start

My Seat

My Seat

The fares are cheap.  Much cheaper than buses for example.  Less than $10 for our trip from what I could figure, and the trains carry a load.  The benches face each other and each hold three people on each side.  None of this armrest nonsense either.  So that’s twelve per row.  There were 29 cars in our train.  Conservatively there were 20 rows per car.  Could there really have been a 7000 person capacity on that train?  Surely there were some cars not filled fully or my math is wrong?  Let’s just knock 2000 people off the train and call it 5000.  That’s still a lot of people riding the rails to Chennai with us.


good place to hang your stuff

good place to hang your stuff

The windows are open.  There are bars though not respected.  Many of my seatmates were frustrated that they were unable to open the bars on my window seat for example, thinking it would convenience me more.  There was a drawing that instructed the means for opening the bars in an emergency, but that was not seen as relevant.  When the train was up to full power we had a good breeze.  There were multiple fans coming from the ceiling along with the fluorescent lights, but I was unsure how many fans were functional.


rocks in Andra Praseh, like the west!

rocks in Andra Praseh, like the west!

The scenery was amazing.  The contrast from one eight million person city to another four and a half million person city was largely one of complete and total rural villages and scenes fixed in time for centuries.  Two oxen were plowing one field along the way with a man driving them from behind.  Numerous goat and sheepherders stood unmoved by the passing train as they watched their flocks.  We watched a funeral and much else.  There were small towns and there were mud brick thatched roof houses a plenty.  Some low rise, rocky rises made me think of the US West though seeing them tower over coconut trees was hard to reconcile.

across the bench neighbor

across the bench neighbor




It all worked remarkably well.  Everyone seemed to understand the drill and settle into it.  The biggest excitement other than duplicate seating was a young man’s lost mobile phone that brought a half dozen outside the train for a look around the tracks for a purpose that escaped me, and was unsuccessful as expected.

lost mobile prompts a search at a train stop

lost mobile prompts a search at a train stop

We jumped out at Chennai into a bustling, black, humid night none the worse for wear and better for the experience.


Chennai train station

Chennai train station


It is two for Tuesday, thanks to Kabf.

Please enjoy

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s Unfair Weather Friend

Alabama Shakes’ Future People

Street Sellers are not Cage Dwellers

Hawker Cage

Hawker Cage

Bengaluru       Visiting the Yesvantpur markets at dawn on a Sunday morning gave our whole ACORN team a better way of understanding the issues some of members were facing and what our union needed to do to address some of them in the future.

As soon as we saw our members in vegetable market spreading out their goods along the sidewalk and unpacking bags of produce, with their carts either nowhere visible or parked across the street and out of the way, I understood this was a different day entirely.  Not only was this due to it being a Sunday market where they were expecting three times the sales, but I finally understood why they were complaining that they were selling so much less on regular days from their carts.

Essentially, they were working in the vise of a tough compromise between two conflicting courts trying to make the new rights to livelihood that the Street Vendors Act of 2014 had given them actually work for them.  A complaint had arisen about the street vendors being on the footpath and the High Court of Karnataka had ordered them removed.  The Indian Supreme Court though had upheld the right to livelihood guaranteed by the 2014 Act which allowed them to sell.  The compromise would have split the sidewalk into sections with pedestrians getting a share and hawkers getting a share.  More practically, in Bengaluru the vendors had been forced onto carts in the street most of the week in order to share the footpath behind them, but on Sunday’s being allowed to take the whole sidewalk and let their shoppers come up to them on the street.  No one was happy, but business was business for now, though ACORN’s organizers were debating various options that would expand their access throughout the week, so there’s work to be done.

If anything, a more curious and difficult problem awaited us around the corner.  A city corporator or councilor had taken it on his own to force a solution that was almost starving some of our vendors.  With his own funds,  he had built an iron fence separating the street from the sidewalk and built one-meter square platforms where he expected the vendors to sell.  Some of the vendors had torn them down, but either way there was a problem because street sellers are not cage dwellers and only the most motivated customers could get to them on foot, and none of their customers could simply come up on a bike or scooter to make a purchase which was possible everywhere else in the stalls and on the carts.

The low fence on the city stalls worked.  There were frequent breaks allowing entry.  Shoppers were protected from traffic while walking on the portion of the street between the front of the stalls and the iron fence, and there was still enough street to even allow the giant buses to narrowly pass.  The cage though was a disaster.  Unfortunately, it would require a lot of work and no small amount of political clout to get the city itself to undue the arbitrary action of the councilor.  A number of the stalls were already vacant as vendors were voting with their feet to try and find other places in the street where they could ply their wares rather than hope people might find their way to their space.

None of the solutions are simple.  One of our leaders, who during the week is a lawyer, told us of the 60 year history of his cooking oil business started by his father that he still maintained and the 20 year history of court claims he had brought to secure their space.

No one can wait that long and survive.  It’s no secret why our street vendors’ union has had success.

fence in front of the stalls

fence in front of the stalls



entrance to train station

entrance to train station


This Land is Your Land – Billy Bragg Version (Video by a group protesting selling of public forests in UK)

Hawkers’ Work

IMG_2999Bengaluru       There are probably 200 markets in Bengaluru, a city of 8 million, known in the West allegedly as a tech-center, the Silicon Valley of India or in the famous novel, White Tiger, as a place where any Indian can be lost forever and reinvent themselves anonymously and invisibly.  We don’t know anything about any of that.  We primarily organize hawkers and street sellers in Bengaluru where we have 15,000 members in 30 of the markets here.

If it can be sold, it can be sold on the street.  If it can be sold on the street, it can be hawked.

Markets like Yesvantpur are divided nicely, though you might not notice it at first glance, between stalls, where various organizing victories by hawkers have led to permanent spaces bordered by iron fences allowing both livelihood and safe shopping.  In the stalls everything imaginable is sold from cooking oil to spices to clothes to small electronics to sneakers and sandals to cookware to literally whatever.

After walking down a long row of scores of stalls the demarcation is a low concrete walled composting area tended by cattle and roaming goats. Turn the corner and you are now in the vegetable market.  Large bicycle wheeled flatbed wooden carts with piled high with vegetables except for a firmly mounted scale with an aluminum bowl and weights to measure the sale.  At Yesvantpur, the most common street sellers featured onions, potatoes, garlic, and ginger.  Others had eggplant or yellow cauliflower. Some had grapes, apples, and bananas.  Small, almost softball sized heads of lettuce were featured in yet others.  The carts were lined up one after another on both sides of the street.  How one decided to stop was obviously a matter of habit and experience, since a novice would have had difficulty figuring out why a steady stream might be at one cart and no one at another even though the goods on offer seemed identical.

In the street market where we have recently won construction of a permanent market under a flyover, the variety is smaller but stunning. Hawkers of every description work there with their wares as well as others running a food court of sorts to catch the crowds coming across the railroad tracks towards the bus switching stations and the street traffic everywhere. One of our leaders was doing a brisk business in ear studs, simple silver chains, and multi-colored rubber bracelets that caught the eye.  I watched to see if the Che Guevara kerchief caught anyone’s attention and resisted the purchase myself.  The hawker kept a smile on the sell constantly, and helped clasp the chain behind the young men’s necks as they gave over their 20 rupees to cinch the deal.


Suresh Kadashan, ACORN’s organizer, pointed out one of our members, an older man who we referred to as the 100% hawker.  He had no home.  This was all of his life.  Right here on this patch.

The weekend is prime time, especially Sundays, where the crowds triple.  But, the market is a daily experience for many Indians, even in megacities like Bengaluru.  Our street sellers will usually make between 300 and 500 rupees a day.  When our hawkers, sometimes over generations, make their way to a permanent stall, they make more obviously.  When $2 per day defines the most abject poverty, a livelihood of $6 to $10 a day is a constant grind, but a big step up.  Having a union is another jump up the ladder allowing recognition, stability, and a decent livelihood.



BANGALORE IS HAPPY (Pharrell Williams) by Grey Worldwide India

Karnataka Government Becoming Environmental?

Gaur at the sharp boundary between tea plantation and native forest, near Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Photos taken by Dr Christopher Young.

Gaur at the sharp boundary between tea plantation and native forest, near Valparai, Tamil Nadu. Photos taken by Dr Christopher Young.

Bengaluru       Although the national government in India seems so biased towards business and development that NGOs, unions, and others worry for their future, some state governments seem to be feeling the wind blow a different direction leaving some hope for the future.  The two-year old government in Karnataka, claiming Bengaluru as its largest city, may be one encouraging example.

The local Deccan Chronicle gives the new government low marks on many issues but pointedly in article after article scores them highly on environmental issues including no tolerance towards problems throughout the state in mining disputes.  The scoring must be on a curve though since the previous day’s Deccan Chronicle story on a major study of the Western Ghats, part of the higher ground, watershed feeding Karnataka and several other Indian states, reported the study as a battle of “miners vs greens.”  An earlier report on the ecologically sensitive area or ESA had sought a blanket ban on mining and industrial activity in 69% of the area, while a newer report would only limit 39%, bringing 60000 square kilometers under the ESA and the ban.  The Karnataka government has not agreed to stop quarrying and sand mining yet, citing development needs.

The paper gives the government more consistent good grades on their policies around land encroachment, which can be translated as stopping builders from erecting developments on vital wetlands and lake beds, an issue well understood in Florida, Louisiana, and other Gulf States in the USA.  In one area they have demolished commercial areas and resorts on 140 acres.   Not that they had much choice since a higher court had ordered the action after residents brought a lawsuit complaining of the constant flooding in their houses, particularly during the monsoon season.  The demolitions do not affect residents, so it’s a tricky environmental problem.

Advocates, including Leo Saldanha with the Environmental Support Group, who ACORN India’s organizers see as the benchmark on such issues, argue that the lakes need to be rejuvenated in order to serve as catchment areas and rebuild the water table.  They are demanding a cleanup of all of the concrete debris from the building demolition in order to achieve those results, and worry that anything less by the government will lead to future encroachment or the creation of a dumping ground.  If the lake is unable to once again hold water, then it must be limited to growing trees, not further development, they argue.

Once again the scorecard is not simple, indicating that concerns over the environment and any curbs on development are still difficult even as the current government seems to be doing better.  Protests are continuing by various community organizations in the encroachment areas whose stated aim is to prevent the government from “caving in to the builders.”

Old habits seem hard to break, but the balance seems to be shifting in the state from development at any cost to a recognition that the environment has to be a first priority as well in order to make the growing city of Bengaluru sustainable.

India Greenpeace Funds-1


Midnight Oil – Beds Are Burning

Pro-Development Modi Government Attacking Unions and Workers

IMG_2967Bengaluru       Suresh Kadashan, ACORN’s head organizer for South India based in Bengaluru, and I started our day as usual at the India Coffeehouse, run by the national Coffee Board.  Even before we left for the series of buses, the G8 and the K2, that would take us to meet with some of our street vendor leaders in market places we were still trying to organize as well as ones where we had won big victories, Suresh began briefing me on some of the one-year old BJP conservative Modi government’s attacks on labor in order to curry favor from business and big developers.

In short, Modi’s so-called “labor law reforms” are a direct attack on millions of workers in the name of more efficiency by consolidating various labor laws.  The basic pitch by the government is to streamline forty-four different labor laws into only five of them, and as Suresh explained it to me to put all disputes with unions and workers into one Labor Court.  Unions are in an uproar and making a decision on a national general strike at the end of May in protest to these proposed new law consolidations.

It’s not just a matter of having to deal with a bureaucracy.   One Modi proposal is to eliminate coverage and labor law protection to small factories and enterprises with less than 40 workers.  According to one union leader:

the main purpose of the Small Factories Bill is to keep 70-80 per cent workforce out of the existing labour laws which provides some rights to them.

That’s a lot of workers.   In another proposal companies would no longer have to consult with the government before laying off workers where one-hundred or more are employed.  The new requirement would be pushed up to three-hundred workers.


The new laws beside greasing the wheels for business and eliminating much of the already flimsy safety net for India’s workers also directly attack union organizing, which got my attention as well.

The unions are more agitated with the proposal according to which at least 10% of the work force or 100 employees will be needed for registering a trade union. At present, seven members can form a trade union irrespective of size of the establishment.


Although our organizing is largely in the informal sector among hawkers, domestic workers, auto rickshaw drivers, and recyclers, we depend on unions, though relatively small in India but heavily concentrated in the public sector, as important political allies to provide ballast in the basic push for workers’ rights to organize and to protect livelihood.   Because various national federations are usually aligned with specific political parties there is usually a hedge against drastic repression.  The union partner of the governing BJP is as mad as all of the other formations, which is a clear sign of bad trouble.


The government has made it clear that these are steps they are taking to create “a better business climate.”   That is surely a program that translates into trouble for workers!

Before calling it a day and running for the G9 bus, we looked at the new market space we had won for our hawkers under the flyover.  I had listened to our members talk about this last year, and now the first part is build and numbered and waiting for the allotment to our hawkers.

Unfortunately this seems to be just the kind of union victory that the Modi government wants to try and legislate away.










Pro-Development Indian Government Cracking Down on NGOs

india-fb-post (1)

credit: Greenpeace

Bengaluru       Arriving at my lodging in Bengaluru after 2 AM in the morning holds some surprises.  One is the emptiness and quiet of the streets, normally full of horns blaring and the constant jockeying of cars, motorcycles, carts, cows, and hapless pedestrians braving all.  The other is how much is going on in the relative quiet with stores selling, factories cranking, and workers on other time clocks pressing forward in the dark of the night.

In the light of the day with bleary eyes, one of the first pieces of news to hit me was the report of the US Ambassador’s speech chiding the Indian government on its crackdown on nonprofits and reminding the “world’s largest democracy,” as India constantly calls itself, perhaps protesting too much, that NGOs have a vital role in civil society.  Certainly crackdowns on NGOs are not uncommon in the world today in notoriously repressive governments.  For example the Organizers’ Forum delegations have seen Russia and Egypt on a tear in recent years to peel back the work of any nonprofits, usually claiming reporting violations as the excuse.  This repression of NGOs almost a year into the new government of the BJP’s Prime Minister Modi may finally answer the question of his true colors.

The Ambassadors’ remarks may be news, but the emerging campaign against nonprofits has been building for months now.  In October 2014, the Home Ministry had given more than 10000 NGOs that had licenses to receive contributions under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) a month to file financial reports with the government alleging that they had not done so for three consecutive years from 2009 to 2012. According to newspaper reports of the 10,344 NGOs so notified only 229 replied. The Outlook reported:

There was no reply from the remaining NGOs leading to cancellation of their registration issued under FCRA….   Among the registration’s cancelled 8,975 NGOs include 510 NGOs against whom notices were sent but returned undelivered.

At one level this might seem reasonable.  After all India will no doubt allege that the USA is the pot calling the kettle black since the IRS has similarly suspended the 501c3 classifications of thousands of nonprofits as well for failure to file annual 990 reports for three consecutive years.

The rationalization is punctured though by the revelation early in the Modi Government of a secret report.  As reported by the Centre for Civil Society, a respected Indian nonprofit:

The controversial leaked report on NGOs was prepared for the new government by the Intelligence Bureau, an internal security agency. It called out several international organizations, including Amnesty International, Action Aid, and the Netherlands’ CORDAID for harming developmental projects relating to coal plants, oil exploration, nuclear plants, steel, and mining.  The report singled out Greenpeace India, which was mentioned 15 times. It alleges that Greenpeace India is using foreign funds to hurt economic progress by campaigning against power projects, mining, and genetically modified food. The home ministry has asked India’s central bank to stop processing foreign contributions to Greenpeace.

The report claimed that activism by foreign funded and Indian licensed NGOs who were blocking development projects was contributing to a “2 to 3 percent drop in the Indian economy.”  For Modi, that was probably more than enough given his long record of economic boosterism from Gujarat that led to his sweeping election victory.

Greenpeace India has announced that it may have to close operations within the month.  Though they claim they are now bringing in 60% of their revenue from donations inside of India, they believe their inability to fully pay staff could force them to shutdown.  Not only advocacy groups, but even the US-office of the Ford Foundation in India has been told it cannot issue any grants in India without governmental approval.  This crackdown is hardly trivial.  The Centre for Civil Society also reports that…

In the year ending in March 2011, the most recent period for which data is available, about 22,000 Indian NGOs received a total of more than $2 billion from abroad, of which $650 million came from the US.

In New York, in a conference of environmentalists listening to glowing reports of the Modi government’s claim to be decreasing India’s dependence on coal, people were excited about Modi.  When asked my opinion of the prospects for the new government, I would only say, “We’re skeptical, so we’ll wait and see.”

What we’re seeing of the government’s attack on nonprofits augurs very poorly for the future under Modi.


Please enjoy Jeff Beck’s Going Down, Thanks to Kabf.