ACORN in Delhi Offers Alternatives to the “Sleep Mafia”

WP_20151204_10_56_12_ProNew Orleans   It is not every day when the work of ACORN and its affiliates is written between the lines of major stories in The New York Times, but recently that was the case in a glaring, tragic story about the so-called “sleep mafia” in Delhi.

The story of privatized sleep follows a familiar pattern in this city: After decades of uncontrolled growth, the city government’s inability to provide services like health care, water, transportation and security has given rise to thriving private industries, efficient enough to fulfill the needs of those who can pay. But shelter, given Delhi’s extremes of heat and cold, is often a matter of survival. The police report collecting more than 3,000 unidentifiable bodies from the streets every year, typically men whose health broke down after years living outdoors. Winter presents especially brutal choices to homeless laborers, who have no place to protect blankets from thieves in the daytime hours. Some try to hide them in the tops of trees.

In this overview, that’s a statement of the problem and the city’s response is somewhat explained by an Indian Supreme Court decision.

A cluster of “pavement dweller” deaths prompted India’s Supreme Court to rule in 2010 that the country’s large cities must provide shelter for 0.1 percent of the population. This winter, Delhi expanded its shelter system to accommodate more than 18,000, but the number of homeless is vast — likely more than 100,000….

As always it’s more complicated than simply some poor people taking advantage of even poorer people, as sleep wallas rent blankets for 20 or 30 rupees a night to the homeless. Many of this number are migrant workers in from the vast, imperiled rural countryside of India, trying to find a way to make a living, rather than how many might read the story and equate the situation in a kneejerk fashion to homelessness in the US. It’s as bad, but it is also somewhat different.

Furthermore there is worse story of Delhi’s efforts to privatize the problem of shelter. ACORN for several years was one of a number of nonprofits that ran several sleeping shelters for migrant workers in various districts of the city, including a large facility in a Delhi Municipal Corporation building in Old Delhi. In 2015 most of the nonprofits, including ACORN’s affiliates were pushed out when the city tried to outsource the problem in a bidding scheme that divided the city into huge regions allowing larger private enterprises to capitalize on the process and squeeze experienced nonprofits out of more effective support for the workers. After the failure of that system the city now has had to revert in many cases back to better operators. Recently I heard from Dharmendra Kumar, ACORN’s director in Delhi, that we had been awarded several new contracts and had a number of the ones we had lost in 2015 returned to us.

What do we do? As Dharmendra reports:

Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counselling and sanitary napkins. Free tuitions are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-deaddiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and have created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from christmas to New year.

When I shared the Times article with Dharmendra he also sent along a picture of a “rescue” vehicle that we are using that combs the streets of Delhi between 10 PM and 4 AM in the morning locating homeless who are sleeping rough and bring them to the nearest shelter.

None of this is enough, but bringing organizations and advocates back into the picture this year restores a voice for the poor and dispossessed that offers hope for expansion of services rather than the ill-fated mega-privatization schemes.

More needs to be done, but organizations like ACORN and its affiliates are leading the way in pushing for a solution and offering help and support in the meantime.

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Janpahal, a Delhi based affiliate of ACORN International in association with Govt of Delhi is running and managing five shelters for homeless namely at Shakarpur, Ganesh Nagar, Yamuna Khadar, Akshardham and Geeta Colony. The shelters are free with many facilities including clean mattress, bed sheets, blankets, quilts, drinking water, electricity, toilets, bathroom, first aid box, lockers, daily newspaper, morning tea, breakfast, counseling and sanitary napkins. Free tuition are provided to school going homeless children. Facilities for entertainment and sports are also available. Along with daily morning tea and healthy breakfast, fresh and hot food for dinner are also being served on Sundays. We run various awareness programmes and programs to link homeless with government services and skill development programs. Special awareness drive was conducted on drug-addiction, HIV/AIDS, TB etc. Homeless residents of these shelters collectively celebrate festivals and has created a creative corner in all shelters. Recently, a film festival was organized from Christmas to New Year.

Poster of film festival Local Legislator playing santa and distributing gifts to homeless kids on christmas Homeless Kids with their Christmas gifts Homeless kids enjoying movie Fresh and hot food being served to homeless Feeding Homeless Kids Feeding Homeless Kid Creative corner by Homeless

China May Drop the Stock Market, but India is in Turmoil

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.51.50 AMKiln, Mississippi     So while all the big whoops worry about their 10ks, plummeting stocks on Wall Street, and whether or not the Fed raises interest rates in Wyoming, what are the rest of us supposed to do? We have grown men and women believing in unicorns and giving them billions. What’s up that that? I thought only very small children and Rainbow Brite believed in unicorns?

No one seems to have a grip on China and one report contradicts another. The economy is collapsing, they are laying off 300,000 soldiers even while they are motor boating into international water space when President Obama is hiking in Alaska, and still more people are buying Apple’s gadgets over there. Somehow China owns a big hunk of America, but it’s a daily mystery to most of us. So, let’s take a break and take a look at India. There’s a democracy of sorts and a country maybe we can understand.

Here’s what we know: India is somewhere between topsy-turvy and turmoil!

Prime Minister Modi took office in a rightwing rout as the BJP, a conservative communalist party swept the long serving Congress Party out of office. Modi had been the governor of Gujarat and, pretending it was Texas, he had campaigned on the supposed economic miracles in the state. Others were less sure. There was still the persistent question about his role in not stopping the slaughter of Muslims in the state some years ago which had been serious enough to deny him a visa for entry into the United States up until like yesterday almost. Much of his platform seemed to be economic development or else, and it is hard to ramrod such a program through a country with even a semblance of democracy.

Attempts to gut the nation’s labor laws to pave the way for business were met this week by a general protest strike called by ten unions that organizers estimated involved 125 million workers. Al Jazeera quoted ACORN India and our hawkers’ union organizer, Dharmendra Kumar, saying

The Modi government has turned a blind eye towards the problems being faced by the labor class. The government must rethink its labor policies. Modi has made a mockery of us by telling the world to come and manufacture in India because it has the cheapest labor.

Kumar also repeated the call for an increase in the monthly minimum wage “from $72 to $226 be extended to the informal sector.”

Ok, you say, but maybe this is just us. Well, I don’t think so.

This week the Modi government also withdrew its proposals for seizing agricultural land for either government infrastructure projects or corporate economic development, which had been a centerpiece of his program to jump-start the economy and make the country more business friendly. Land issues have been wildly contentious in states throughout the country. Modi got a reminder that rapidly urbanizing India is still almost half rural and agrarian.

And, then there’s the mess in Gujarat. Friends volunteering in Gujarat’s largest city had offered to help out while in the state, and I’d demurred saying we continued to not be comfortable working in Gujarat, but thanks all the same. We got an email saying that demonstrations of 300000 to half-million people in the city had led to them being housebound for days as the military was mustered and the state feared a return of communal violence. The issue was triggered when one of the major castes totally almost 15% of the total state population known as popularly as the Patels hit the streets demanding either an end to the reservation or quota system of affirmative action in employment and education for long discriminated against groups or that they should be made a registered caste themselves and allowed to compete for the reserved slots. Reading the story in the Times, Journal, or other western sources and you are clueless, but this is the “fire next time” in India, and it is hard to believe that managing such a crisis is Modi’s strong suit given his history in Gujarat.

Good luck with figuring out China and believing in unicorns, but keep an eye on India. There’s a reason that Obama has established a “hotline” to Modi in India now. Something big is boiling there!

Make No Mistake, India’s Modi is Not a Progressive on Any Score

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Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project

New Orleans    In one of those rare and marvelous coincidences, I had foregone my annual trip to Mumbai, because Vinod Shetty of ACORN Foundation of India and the Dharavi Project was amazingly going to be in New Orleans when I returned, giving us days to catchup on events there and elsewhere in India.

Invariably at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Dialogue and elsewhere, the subject would come around to Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office and the prospects for the country in the years to come.  Shetty could not have been more pessimistic or clearer in his continued warning of the dangers to come under Modi as his increasingly rightwing, conservative BJP party continues to consolidate power.

As a lawyer or advocate who practices still before the Bombay Labor Court, Shetty said that in meetings he had attended to discuss the Modi proposed labor law clawbacks of union and worker rights, even HMS, now the country’s largest union, and the union traditionally allied with the BJP as their patron, has been strident in arguing its case in opposition
to the changes.  Shetty was convinced that not all of the package will be approved, but also believed that Modi and the government will be relentless in trying to erode these rights.The primary example is the state of Rajasthan, where many of these so-called reforms have already been implemented in modified ways where the state could act in areas not preempted by the central government.  There, in order to allow layoffs in enterprises with 100 workers or more, Rajasthan had extended the severance payments from 30 to 45 days in exchange for eliminating the state approval of the layoff.   The Modi proposal is to eviscerate protections for workers from redundancy below 300 in a workplace.

The message being sent by the attack on NGOs from the Modi government is essentially, shut up or starve.The clear objective of the government is to silence opposition to development and business wherever possible.  The exceptional inclusion of action against the Ford Foundation is a signal in Shetty’s view to one and all that the government will only approve grants that are pristinely free of anything remotely like advocacy.  Toe the government line or else!

Shetty predicts that underlying some of the government initiatives will be special emphasis on curtailing NGOs and other efforts by religious organizations of all stripes other than Hindu. The Modi record from Gujarat is frightening, and Shetty believes more is coming.

Meanwhile The Wall Street Journal accuses Modi of not moving quickly enough to force the coal industry to be more productive and efficient, citing numerous business interests throughout India, contrary to the hopes of environmentalists around the world who had thought they were seeing something different in the early signs from Modi.  Others are
clamoring for a change in tax rules, a cutback in subsidies to the poor, and other radical changes.

Modi probably thinks that opening a front against NGOs and labor will be enough red meat to quiet his business backers demanding more radical changes, but for the Indian people none of this seems like good news to come.

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The Street Vendors Act 2014

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 9.47.54 AMDelhi               After eight days on the ground in India and two days in the air and endless discussions of the formally named THE STREET VENDORS (PROTECTION OF LIVELIHOOD AND REGULATION OF STREET VENDING ACT, 2014, which has become our primary organizing tool since formal passage and enactment on May 1, 2014, it was clearly time for me to read the full Act and understand the handles completely.   This is where the promise and problems with the Act become clearer.

At most levels the Act is everything we had hoped – and said – in one market place after another and used effectively in the first year of its enactment.  Where the licensing of street vendors had largely disappeared years ago leaving the vast majority of vendors technically operating illegally, the Act allows them a path to legalization.  Key in paving this road is something the Act calls the Town Vending Committee, which is responsible for putting together the plan, surveying the spaces, monitoring the whole operation, and hearing potential grievances.  These committees were to be appointed with some permanent members like the area’s medical officer and other governmental officials, but also members of the nonprofit community, local unions and associations of vendors.  Most importantly the published bill specified that forty percent of the committee, including thirty percent women, would be composed of vendors themselves to be elected through a locally created procedure by their comrades.

The vending committees were all supposed to be up and running within six months of the Act’s implementation and have their work ready for primetime within a year after passage, and here is where we start to find the rough edges dragging.  A year later most of the town vending committees have not been established, and the draft bill’s protections and process for forty percent vendor representation may not have emerged in the final form of the Act, leaving even more confusion and more responsibility in local Indian states and cities to freelance the process within the overall guarantees of vendor protection.   The Act is also murky on what point the central government steps in to assure the rights if local authorities fumble.

The protections are real.  There will be vending areas.  The vendors will have a right to the streets, sidewalks, and other areas.  There is a guarantee of a licensing process and some flexibility allowing there to be a number of licensed vendors up to a ceiling of 2.5% of the population of the ward, city, and so forth, which would allow legalization, identification, and protection against harassment.

The problems though are equally real.  There is no definition of “public purpose” that would allow removal, even though there is a guarantee of alternate locations.  The vendors’ protections are mainly familial on license transfers and the definitions require the vending be the primary income for the vendor, some of which doesn’t align with the realities on the street.  The grievance procedure is silent on whether the vendor can be represented by his or her union, which is critical to us obviously.

In short, we have a rough handle which seems certain to force us into innumerable fights in order to translate the general protections into realistic and workable safeguards at the local level.  The Act at best is a skeleton that needs to be fleshed out.  It’s no wonder our union has been growing so rapidly in south India over the last year.  Vendors can see the future with hope, but are realistic that without a union their chances at getting there in one piece are close to zero.   To make this work for the vendors in any way, shape or form will take years and years of difficult battles place to place, space to space, town to town, city to city, and state to state.

India Notes for My Father

IMG_3096Bengaluru     Every trip is an education.   Every trip to India is a contradiction.

The Chennai train station had free wi-fi for one hour, but so few seats that most people sat on the floor.  The Bengaluru airport is almost new, build by a French company on a 20-year concession before it will be claimed by the government, so in the city that bills itself the Silicon Valley of India, there’s no wi-fi, or basically none, since the promise of something comes from the giant Indian monopoly, Tata, for 45 minutes, accessible by a text message to your nonexistent local phone. Perhaps worse, flying from Bengaluru to Delhi to journey home a bag checked in Bengaluru would have to be reclaimed in Delhi, because the domestic and international terminals are a 20 minute or more bus trip apart.  Let’s not make it easy to come or go in India.

Of course being dropped at the airport in Bengaluru is still the easy road home.  Suresh Kadashan, ACORN India’s director in south India left me at the airport to have the car roll him home for a minute and then to the train station to make a 5:00 rail to a city at the very border of Karnataka and Maharashtra, fourteen hours away on the train, to deal with the threatened closing of a market there for ten days which would
devastate our members.  I’ll be over the Atlantic Ocean halfway to Newark before he shows up at 7AM.

We were both relieved to be on our way to the next ports of call though in some ways, not because of the work or the problems postponed, like this big market crisis, but because for major parts of four days we were joined by various locally contracted crews for two different documentary films in various stages of completion somewhere between help and hope.  Both sets of directors promised faithfully that their interest was simply to follow us around, being virtually invisible so they could capture the truth of our work.  The reality was wildly different, though all were well intentioned, we were organizing somewhere near the theater of the absurd.  In some cases the photographers were clueless, unable to navigate the local languages in either Chennai or Bengaluru, while expecting we would feed and ferry them about.  In others situations they confused documentary for high drama, and we were asked to stage tourist gawking, bus riding, and any manner of other scenes, we politely declined.  We had directors hither and yon that we had to remind repeatedly that we were organizers.  All meant well, and no doubt, all will end well, but what a relief to be free of our one-eyed camera shadows and their various helpers!   What an experience – never again!

On the other hand,  this morning at the flyover market,  I was able to study carefully the process where one of our leaders, and alternately his father, made giant, thin dosas that looked exactly like giant, thin pancakes coming off the grill.  They are made of rice flour though and in many ways the texture is more like a crepe.  It was hard not to imagine cranking them out as a specialty of our coffeehouses in New Orleans with
cinnamon, sugar, and any manner of other treats.  Talking to our vendor, between 630 AM and 1130 when he closes he serves more than 400 breakfasts of idlys, dosas, and more to a steady stream of people, charging twenty rupees for a full place and ten rupees for a half-plate, essentially between a 20 and 35 cents USD for the meal.  They look like hotcakes, and they sold like hotcakes.

Summer in India runs between March and May before the monsoons come. A daughter of one man we met was out of school.  Our vendor’s father was helping during the dry season before returning to his village to plant.   Summer is waiting for me on the other end of this trip once I hit the south again, but otherwise the world awaits, ever changing.

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The Law of the Streets

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

talking to a police harassing us that is in Chennai in the Mint Road market

Bengaluru       In Chennai and Bengaluru, the issue we continued to hear in every market where we visited with our members was the police.  Every day was a continual battle for space and the streets.   We may have gotten a law passed in Delhi, but without power, literally in the streets, it wouldn’t matter to our members.

Part of the problem is the push-and-shove between the hawkers and the police over every foot in the sidewalk and every inch into the street.  Some of this we can see in the streets of every major city even in the United States where people are rolling out their wares on street corners and bundling them up quickly when they see a cop car on the street in a continual cat-and-mouse game.  The law in India makes this different, because now there are some rights, but a street seller needs to get as close to the crowd of pedestrians as possible, and that’s part of the rub.

And, the reason why the police in India continue to want their palms greased, sometimes up to 100 rupees per day, which many of our hawkers continue to begrudgingly be forced to pay.  For the members, even when they join together and win as a union, if they were forced from their space even for a couple of days, as any small businessperson would realize, that means that they have to rebuild their regular customer base.   A food vendor in Bengaluru who was our leader in the area had worked his particular corner for 20 years, complained to us about having been pushed out for three days by the police, and now, weeks later, was still trying to reconnect to his customers.  He asked Suresh if it would have been easier to keep paying the bribe.  The question wasn’t rhetorical.

In Chennai, we walked a long way up and down the Mint Road Market.  The market runs almost four kilometers.  Some shops and sellers can date their business 80 years.  Under the new Act, any market over fifty years is a “heritage” market and has even more protection from dislocation.  Yet, as we walked towards the end of one terminus of the market with our leaders there, two policemen still, noticing the crowd around us, thought it was worth their time to come over and hassle us about what we were doing and try to edge their way into some semblance of control of the streets, claiming we were blocking traffic.  On Mint Road the streets truly belong to the people, but the display by the police made a point nonetheless.

Suresh’s phone kept ringing as we visited markets in Bengaluru with calls from Mangalore and Mysore, where city officials and police where threatening to bulldoze markets.  We watched a documentary one evening that Dharmendra Kumar had brought down from Delhi over the weekend.  Both he and Suresh had helped explain the situation with foreign direct investment and the hawkers to the Indian-Canadian filmmaker, and were credited with help and translation in the film, but it had taken Dharmendra four years to finally get a copy.  We relished the part that focused on the fight we had waged to protect a 350 year old market in Bengaluru and interviews with one of our main leaders there and the “happy” ending as the film’s postscript when the market was saved.

Like all organizing though, winning a victory one day doesn’t change the fight the next day for other members and other campaigns and other places and spaces.   We may have won a law, but it is enforced in the streets in the constant battle between organized sellers and police pushing the other way for control of the streets and some of the old ways.  This is a battle our union has to fight every day where we have members.   There is no end in sight.

bus transfer station market in Chennai

bus transfer station market in Chennai

 

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Green Street Elite – Stand your ground