Friday, September 10, 2010

Caste (A)way

End of 2011 India would have collected the data of the castes of its citizens; hot debate on caste based census was almost like a storm in a cup. Many of you who are reading this may not agree with the view but it’s time to call ‘spade a spade’. Sitting in the comforts of our living rooms and calling ourselves global citizens or being idealistic does not change the fact that the poverty in this country is linked to caste. If drunken driving is no reason to ban cars then the argument on caste census becoming a tool for minority or caste politics etc etc is trivial.

For sake of argument which country in the world does not ask your caste, which political party in this world does not address the vote bank? In the recent UK elections a person from Indian origin was given a ticket to contest from a constituency that had Asian majority. US can intellectually call it ethnic groups etc etc, it all leads to one single thing, ‘who were you born as’. Let's cut the bullshit of religion, caste, ethnic groups etc etc being irrelevant in the economic surge or political process.

If we accept that there is a problem then it’s easier to find a solution, hence let’s get the fact right, there is a pattern to poverty in India and that has to do with caste. 25 years of well run literacy program has still left us with 37% poverty (even though I disagree on the 37%, as the urban poor are different from rural poor). The ideological view of ‘literacy for all’ rhetoric has not changed the fact that the female feticide is the highest among the educated urban class, so leave alone it being ‘the plan’ for poverty reduction.

People from certain castes and certain religion have been left behind in the India growth story. If we have to address the 37% poverty and 35% illiteracy, then there is a genuine need to understand the social fabric of hungry India. The fear of politicians manipulating the vote bank or data leading to more reservation etc are petty issues compared to the larger need of creating a non-intimidating atmosphere, empowering every section of the society, inclusiveness in our growth process and finally not just creating opportunities but creating options to every single Indian.

As a country we are growing younger, which only mean we will have more ‘young and restless’, and large part of the younger population demographically are in this 37% population that is under poverty. If we do not identify and engage them rightly, as a nation we will be left with a lot on our plate to deal with. Today the only caste difference we want to recognize is the rich and the poor or the urban and rural, in this lopsided view we are missing the disease and are only treating its symptoms.

Our shining examples of people from the backward caste making it in life comes with the reality that they have worked harder than their counterparts from forward caste, and for some reason we seem to be very ok with them working harder. Did it ever occur to us that why should a person from a backward caste work harder than the one from the forward caste to be what he/she wants to be? We have type casted them as backdoor entries or reservation class for decades, laterally tearing into their self-esteem and the disregarding the right to opportunity.

Here are some facts to ponder, and if we still believe hungry India can be addressed without understanding the make of its population then we must be living in eternal denial.

- 50% of the 28% urban population lives in smaller towns
- 72% of India lives in rural areas
- Less than 32% of rural population are from forward castes
- 16% of the population is SC (50+ sub-castes listed under this)
- 7% of the population is ST
- 52% of the population is OBC (3000+ sub-castes listed under this)

Recently during a discussion on caste census at an alumni meet, I was appalled to hear a remark that ‘caste census will create more Mayawaties’, what I am not able to understand is not just the attitude of the remark but selective targeting of a caste and equalizing quality with caste. A bad politician has no caste; UP was not better during the time of N D Tiwari or Kalyan Singh or Rajnath Singh or R P Gupta or Mulayam Singh Yadhav, each of them have played to the galleries but we still believe in linking quality to caste, which in a way only makes it clear that the caste is in our heads really.

The growth of a country is in its inclusiveness, in its ability to bring all sections of the society to the discussion table and to the drawing board, if reservation is the only means to address it so be it. It’s time we realized that a group of think tanks or economic big wigs cannot decide on what is good for every Indian; let’s give an opportunity to people across board to speak for themselves. Economic participation is directly linked to Social and Political empowerment & inclusion, and caste census is the only way to assess the position we are in and strategize how we can make India inclusive.

I to believe in a casteless system and my only caste is ‘being an Indian’, but one cannot ignore the ground reality or feel intellectual by harping of no caste system. The fact of the matter is that there is no equality without equality in Political, Economical and Social process, inclusive India needs a better understanding of its make.

- Kavitha Reddy

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Roaring Mountain

Roaring winds from Mt Nanda Devi East was crashing the tent at Camp-1 (5200 meters); one lift would take the tent down 300 meters onto the other side of the ridge. Ice axes, 3-feet snow stakes and walking sticks that were used in anchoring the tent loosened out in no time. I used all that was in the tent to hold the 3 corners and stood firmly at the 4th, I knew I was losing ground and had to get out to safety abandoning the tent, my backpack and other essentials were ready to be dragged out, it was just a matter of time that I would be forced to exit. After one bigger round of pounding, I heard Bharath and Takpa, they rushed in kicking down the anchors into the snow and we were holding on to the tent for the next 45 minutes till Nanda Devi calmed down.

Locals believe that Nanda Devi range is one of the most powerful and dangerous range in the Himalayas, they offer prayers to Nanda Devi to ensure that her fury does not bring doom. For a mountaineer peaks in Pindari Glacier have always been the most challenging quests, given its inhospitable terrain and highly unpredictable weather conditions. But Pindari Glacier is also one of the most beautiful regions, and our quest to climb Mt Nanda Khat (6611 Meters) started for Loherkhet.

Trek from Loherkhet to Pindari Glacier (the glacier has receded in the last two decades) is a pure scenic beauty of 50 Kms, the trail is a traverse all through the huge rocky hills on one side, river Pindari gushing right below and rocky & lush green hills on the other side with several waterfalls that join river Pindari at the base. The rich forest cover on both sides of the river houses an amazing assortment of flora and fauna, birds like Eurasian Jays, Rose Finches, Snow Partridges, Snow Doves, Fly Catchers etc are found in abundance and Dr Lalit captured over 45 species of birds through his lens.

Even though the Rhododendron flowering season was over, there were still some pink patches here and there in contrast with lush green surroundings. The clear water in the river splashing the huge rocks, sound of the waterfalls all around and the wind was soothing. Dakuri our first camping site gave us a 180-degree trailer of the snow covered peaks like Maiktoli, Cream Roll, Sunderdhunga Col, Panwali Dwar, Bhanoti, Nanda Devi and its outer sanctuary ridge.

As we hiked up and down the hills crossing Khati, the chirping of the birds and the sound of the pleasant breeze was replaced by the roaring river; with water gushing down rapidly slamming the huge rocks in its way making its presence felt. Tiny brown dippers did entertain us for a while but the sound of the river was too loud to be ignored. As we reached a place called Dwali where the water flowing from Kafni & Pindari Glaciers meet, it was a different world all together; the enormity of the water was so much that the hills on both sides are literally invisible.

As we moved to higher altitude the trees and shrubs were replaced by grass and the trail opened into the meadows covered with the bright yellow Butter cups and over 4-5 colors of Potentilla. With clear blue sky, and ice covered peaks far ahead, it looked like a carpet of flowers just laid out to shoot a scene in Yash Chopra movie.

One of the threats that was very eminent was excessive grazing, each of the flocks were not less that 2-3 hundred sheep and the total sheep would not be less than 4000. Added to grazing, shepherds set off fire on the dried grass and in they do not even spare the Juniper shrubs. Birds were screaming out of the fire abandoning the nest and the little ones and the eggs. It was heart breaking to see the destruction caused; the grass that holds on to the top soils erodes within no time causing landslides.

As we approached basecamp, the view of the magnificent peaks, constant noises of the avalanches and rock falls welcomed us. Given the logistical difficulties for a 12 member team to manage itself for 20-30 days we decided to set up our advance basecamp closer to the peak we would be attempting. As we got closer we could sense that the furies of the nature got stronger, calmer nights were replaced by thunder, snowfall and the day with gushing avalanches. At advance basecamp it was indeed a 360 degree effect, as we were completely surrounded by the peaks, Lamcher, 1, 2, 3, Nanda Kot, Changuch, Trails Pass, Nanda Khat, Panwali Dwar, Baljuri.

Our movement to higher camps got slower than planned, and sometimes we stayed in the tents for 24-48 hours. Route to Camp-1 was about 4-hours with two rock faces of 150-200 meters each, an ice wall and an altitude of 900 meters. Occupying Camp-1 with all that we needed took us 8 days, and the approach to summit camp from there on was a snowfield filled with crevasses, snow bridges and a climb 3-4 hours. The hidden crevasses are always dangerous, many may not be dangerous but in bad weather anything can get worst. Reeba fell into a crevasse and could not pull herself out, we luckily had Wallambok who got down into the crevasse and release her climbing boots that was stuck. Smaller incidents more than being dangerous take away a lot of energy and time, thereby slowing the progress in the mountains or getting held up in bad weather. However well trained or experienced mountaineer one could be, there is no possibility of competing with the bad weather or taking an unsafe route trying to challenge nature at its worst.

After days of waiting for the weather to get better we finally got a clear window, summit attempt started with splitting the team into two. As it was an alpine style climbing we could do better with two teams and also the risk factor would be much lesser in smaller teams. As one team conserved their energy at Camp-1 the lead team successfully attempted the summit, it took over 20 hours, weather got worst at the end of 11 hours, but reaching the lower camp safely was a priority. The next day second team did not get lucky, they were to start the summit ascend by 10 pm and weather never cleared, with heavy snowfall, complete whiteout and strong winds they had to move down to safety with heavy hearts.

Every expedition, every summit attempt may not be always successful, what drives a mountaineer to these mountains again and again seeking new highest and new challenges is the sheer love to be midst of the magnificent peaks. Mountains do really bring out the best in you; one would look at them and wonder how tiny and insignificant human beings really are.

For a true mountaineer surviving the cold, facing the challenges, climbing the mountains is not a sport but it’s an ‘Attitude’ they love to live.

- Kavitha Reddy

Also got published in Deccan Herald - Sunday Herald Travel section on 11th Sept 2010 titled 'Conquring Nature's Fury'