‘Tongas Will Become Dinosaurs Soon’

  I was 15 when I took the seat alongside my father and started ferrying passengers on the roads of Lucknow.

For 60 years, I have guided several thousands of tourists around the heritage sites of our historical city. Until the early 2000s, there was steady business for most of the tongawalahs. We never fell short of tourists and used to return home with a decent amount of money – enough to run our households and feed our horses. However, with the passage of time, things deteriorated drastically.

Passengers hardly come by. And when someone chooses to take a tonga ride, it leads to a squabble among the tongawallahs, over who gets to ferry that lone passenger. The tonga was my bread and butter once; now it is a burden that I have chosen to carry to my grave. Earlier, the state government had chalked out a route, which was working well for us. We used to ply across the five-kilometer-long stretch between Chidiyaghar to the Chhota Imambara.

It included all the historical sites such as, Bhoolbhulaiya, Bada Imambara, and Pukka Pul. But now our movement has been restricted. We can now ply only between Pukka Pul and the Unity College – a one-kilometer long stretch. During the Samajwadi Party regime, this one-kilometer stretch was declared the ‘heritage zone’. The road was even paved with old bricks to give it a ‘heritage’ look.

The then chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav had promised that other vehicles will be banned from this stretch to give us the much-needed boost. But such promises are never kept – it is one lesson that I have learnt. The advent of e-rikshaws have proven to be the last nail on our coffins. They ferry across the city like bees, with no one to check them.

Commuters too prefer e-rikshaws over tongas, since they are cheaper and can move around anywhere in the city as they have licenses. Till 10 years ago, we had licenses too. But the city administration has not renewed them. They are also waiting to quietly phase us out. Burdened with our set of problems, we have met the district magistrate several times, but to no avail. All we get is reassurances and no real action.  With no option left, most tongawalahs have shifted jobs.

The tongas left can be counted on the fingers now. There are just eight to 10 tongas on the roads of Lucknow, with a daily income of a meagre Rs.50 to Rs 100 a day. I am old, and I have chosen to continue with the `legacy’ of my fore-fathers till the day I die.

But my children have no interest in this profession. I have four sons and fortunately, all of them are fortunately in different professions. Once I die, I know for sure that my tonga will be either sold off or will be kept chained outside our house. The other tongawalahs await the same fate. An important part of the city’s heritage is on the verge of extinction, and no one seems to be bothered. Lucknow will quietly witness the extinction of our clan.

Gurdeep Singh Dua

‘Family Sent Me To Deaddiction Unit To Usurp Property’

Gurdeep Singh Dua, a 64-year-old advocate from Delhi, alleges that his family conspired to forcefully confine him in a ‘de-addiction’ centre for 21 months. There, he was left out to shiver in the cold. Treated as slave, he was made to scrub floors and force-fed medicines that deteriorated his health. From a successful lawyer, Dua has been reduced to frail man seeking justice 

Six years ago, my daughter got married. All these years I had found it difficult to accept their relationship. But in the month of February in 2016, there was a thaw. I had finally accepted their relationship. ‘Would you like to have a drink with me?’ my son in-law asked. I agreed. I toasted to the welcome him as the newest addition to our family. I was happy… ecstatic even, but little did I know that it was all going to end soon.

I stepped out into the garden with my drink and a couple of men pounced on me. They held me tight and threw me into a van like dog. A few kilometers away, hell awaited me. I found myself in a ‘de-addiction’ centre. And here’s the catch: I never had an alcohol addiction problem. But I guess my son-in-law decided that putting me there was the best way to pressure me into transferring my property to him. However, I did not buckle under pressure and have still managed to hold on to my property.

At the de-addiction centre, while, most of the other inmates were petty criminals, brought in by the police, there were some like me, who were ostracized by their family. My family had apparently paid lakhs of Rupees to keep me there – to be treated like a slave, along with the rest of the inmates. We were made to sweep and mop the floor. Whoever dared to disobey was punished.

They would mercilessly beat inmates and make them stand for hours. This was their idea of detox. Almost every night, the staff members would come drunk. They were even addicted to drugs. The owner of the centre, would ask the inmates to give him body massages by turns, during winters. But there was no one to check. I was made to scrub floors and was left out in the cold without any blanket.

The quality of the food was very bad as well. I suffered from erratic blood pressure and the medicines that I was being force-fed further deteriorated my health. How can they treat a senior citizen like this?

The medicines kept me dizzy and tired. They tried their best to make me physically and medically unfit. All this while nobody from home visited me. My brother had tried to bring me home-cooked food once, but he was turned away. I stayed at the facility for 21 months and was released in April 2018, and all these months, my wife was in Canada, staying with my son.

I wondered if my wife had also plotted along with my son-in-law to imprison me at the de-addiction centre. I had always suspected that my son in-law was eyeing my residential property. After we had accepted their marriage, my son in-law had begun to interfere in our financial and property-related decisions. My wife seemed to agree with him most of the time. On several occasions, I tried telling her that we should not let him interfere in our lives, but she could not care less.

In fact, before the de-addiction centre episode, I had told my wife that I would be filing a case against my son in-law, who wanted to oust me from my home. This had infuriated her. I am a free man now –free but frail. I still have my property intact. But protecting it has become my mission. I have filed a police complaint against my son-in-law and the owner of the detox centre. I have a long tedious legal battle. I have done very well in my life. In my prime, I enjoyed various political posts. But the 21 months at the centre have crushed my spirit. I am just a sick man trying hard to recover and seek justice.

Pumping Life Into Dry Bundelkhand Belt

With matkas (earthen pots to store water) on our head, we would walk several kilometers to fetch drinking water. Sometimes it would take us all day. But this is what life is like in Jhiriyajhor, my village. Located in the district of Chattarpur, Madhya Pradesh, our village falls in Bundelkhand, and arid region where access to potable water is a privilege.

The state government (public health engineering department) has installed water hand pumps in most blocks but most of them remain dysfunctional. People call them sookha (dry) pumps. About three years ago, I heard about an NGO organising a camp about the upkeep of hand pumps. I, along with a couple of other women from my village, decided to attend it. There was disapproval from our menfolk who thought it was waste of time. But I stood my ground. Within a month, we got familiar with the structure and mechanism of a hand pump and how to repair a dysfunctional one.

The NGO also provided us with some basic tools. Empowered, we returned to our village with a hope to end the drinking water problems that plagued our village. A few days later, we came to know about a dysfunctional hand pump on the outskirts of our village. I realised it was time to put our skills to test. Armed with our new toolset, we reached the spot and inspected the machine. The entire village had gathered around us.

For them, a group of illiterate women were trying to mend a hand pump; they had only seen trained mechanics from the sarkari department do the job. Much to their surprise, we were successful in repairing the pump within an hour. As the first stream of water gushed out, there were claps and cheers all around us. We were superstars. I was nicknamed `Hand pump waali Chachi’. The state department in the region takes four to five days to address complaints. But we were ready to reach the spot immediately. So, people started approaching us.

They found us prompter, free of cost and more efficient. Other women of our village too joined and we trained them as well. It became a block chain soon. Today, we are a group of 15 women now who can fix a pump. Our village head has arranged for us a mobile number for people to lodge their complaints. We cater to nearby villages like Mabiya, Gullankhera, Patnakhera, Udanna, Poorapatti, Jhiriyakehra, Sarkana and Barela. People appreciate our efforts.

They have even arranged for some new tools to help us deal with faulty machines better. Our efforts have even been lauded by the (district) collector sahib too. He was impressed with our efforts and assured us of all possible assistance.

For several years, women in my village had to travel miles in search of water. But one bold step has brought water into our village. I now want to train more women in repairing hand pumps. Women are not restricted to kitchen and household work. We are independent, we know how to help ourselves. My story says it all!

'My Father's Olympic Dreams Are Now Mine'

Boxer Gaurav Bidhuri, bronze medalist at the World Boxing Championship, took 14 long years of struggle to fill into his father’s gloves and fulfill his dream. Rigorous training, painful injuries and constant criticism in the media… all played a part in charting his path of success. He is now chasing his father’s Olympic ambitions.

My father, Dharmendra Bidhuri, used to be a fiery young man. He would often pick up fights in his college or on the streets. A friend advised him to channelise his anger and fighting talent in a boxing ring. That advice changed his life. It also decided my fate, long before I was born. In two years, my father became the Delhi state champion in senior category and a national medalist. He was unstoppable. He had beaten some of the best boxers in the country. But just when he began to harbour an ambition to win an Olympic medal for India, he was forced by family elders to get married.

Due to financial constraints, my grandfather told him to hang up his gloves. A few years later, he started his own boxing club and trained boxers for free. Maybe his students could fulfill his dream, he thought. When I was 11, I joined my father’s academy. In the beginning, I was just an observer. Later, I would get into bouts with my seniors while my father quietly monitored my moves from a distance. In no time, my father began to believe that I could fulfill his Olympic dreams.

My training became more rigorous. I was studying at Frank Anthony Public School in Delhi and balancing my training in the ring with studies was an uphill task. I would wake up at 5 am for my morning training regime. Before the sweat could dry, I had to rush to school at 8. I came back from school 2:30 and went for tuitions from 3:30 pm to 5 pm. Then, once again, my evening session of training at 6 pm. There was little time for anything else. Some of my relatives questioned my father’s obsession. There is no future in boxing, they would say. My mother too was averse to my boxing. Which mother in the world would like to see her son return home with cuts and bruises every day?

But my father held his faith in me and my training continued along with my studies. I started doing well at the junior level. I became a state champion and then a junior national champion. Next, I went for my first international competition Junior World Boxing Championship, where I lost in the quarterfinals. I played at the youth national and international competitions but still could not secure a medal at the international level.

I participated in my first senior competition in 2011 at the National games and won a bronze medal.  I joined the senior national camp and with this, I was probably a step closer to my father’s dream, which by this time had become my dream too. I won my first international medal – a bronze – at the 2012 President’s Cup in Jakarta. This was followed by a long dry spell. I could not win a single medal at any of the international competitions.

I missed the London Olympic qualification which fueled a barrage of doubts in my abilities and left tongues wagging in the media. Some newspaper wrote ‘Gaurav is not an international material’. Sending me to any international competition was just a waste of time and resources. I was demoralised. In 2015, there was a turning point. An Italian boxing team called Italian Thunder selected me for World Series of Boxing. I played in six fights and won four. And then in 2016, I was hired by a team from the USA for World Series of Boxing. I became the only boxer from India who got two successive contracts from foreign teams. I must share my quarterfinals jinx here. I always reached there, then lost.

I lost out at the Olympic and the Asian Olympic qualifiers. The quarterfinals barrier remained my nemesis. But my father never lost hope. In 2017, I was selected in the national team for Asian Championship in 2017. Once again I lost in quarterfinals by a close margin. The loss and a new back injury left me disheartened. Exercises, such as running and jumping were a strict no-no. The hard luck came to an end later that year at a training camp in France. I came to know that I got a wild card entry for the World boxing championship 2017. It was unbelievable. With renewed vigour and confidence, I started training. I had finally got one more shot at fulfilling my father’s dream. From France we went to Czech Republic for Grand Prix and I won a gold. At the World Boxing Championship, I won quite a few bouts with some very distinguished boxers.

When I reached quarterfinals, I was nervous. But this time I had made up my mind. I will not go home without a medal. I broke the quarterfinal barrier. I won! I could not reach the finals. I lost to the USA in a close fight. But I wasn’t disheartened – after all, I had won a medal for India. I am the fourth only Indian to win a medal at the World Boxing Championship. Fourteen years of struggle has not gone waste. My father’s efforts have not gone waste. Struggle and injuries are part of a sportsman’s life and one should never get bogged down. Next Stop is Olympics… I have miles to go.

Green Shoots II

Green Shoots II – Reformed By The Rod

I am a carpenter. Lack of work opportunities in my village has forced me to take up jobs outside the village. Up till a few months ago, my daily routine was to join my friends on the outskirts of our village, Ramasipur, to play cards in the evening after a hard day’s work in the city.

It all looked good initially. On some days, I would return home with a ‘good win’. But gradually, things started deteriorating. I wasn’t lucky every day. I started losing and to cope with the losses, I found refuge in cheap country liquor.

My debts (in the game) started increasing and I started to lose most of my earnings to gambling and alcohol. Family quarrels became a norm. On several occasions, my wife went to her parental home along with the children. I brought her back every time with promises which I knew I would not be able to keep.
One evening, when we were busy gambling and enjoying alcohol, my wife, along with the Green Gang attacked us with wooden staffs.

It was a bolt from the blue and we had no choice but to run for our lives. These attacks became more frequent in the days that followed. We changed our location every time, but my wife had deputed one of my sons to spy on me and inform her about our whereabouts.

More and more wives joined the gang, leaving us exhausted and clueless. We tried different locations in the neighbouring villages but to no avail. The Green Gang had managed to mobilise women from the neighbouring villages as well.

Finally, about three-four months ago, I decided to quit gambling and alcohol. I was fed up of this cat and mouse chase. Some of my friends like Ramji and Girdhar also joined me. We collectively pledged in front of the gang and our family members that we will not dabble in gabling or alcohol ever again. Initially, it was difficult.

I used to be irritable, wasn’t able to sleep well, and had lost interest in work. But gradually I came to terms with my new life. Now, I am completely cured – a new man altogether.
Now, all of us collectively go to the city for work and come back home on time. Things at home have also improved.

I am able to spend quality time with my wife and children. We (the rehabilitated men) now, help the Green Gang in its cause. We gather at the local tea shop and try to convince others to shun the addiction of gambling and alcohol.

Green Shoots I

Green Shoots I – 'No Alcohol, No Gambling'

A year ago, I was so fed up with my husband’s habit of drinking and gambling that I even contemplated self-destruction. Then in Varanasi’s Assi Ghat, I met Divyanshu Upadhyay, a member of the Hope Welfare Trust, a non-profit body working for rural India betterment, who suggested that I should form a group or gang just like those operating in some other villages where women face similar problems with their menfolk.

Excited by the idea, I returned to my village (Ramsipur) and slowly started talking to women there who were facing such problems. When we had a group of around 20, we went back to Divyanshu bhaiyya who taught us some self-defence skills using the lathi (cane) and some basic martial arts. We began patrolling the streets of our village. In the beginning, everyone made fun of us, even the womenfolk in our village. Bu then we began raiding the gambling dens and places where men gathered to drink heavily. That’s when the villagers started taking us seriously.

Word spread quickly and we began getting information about the “addas” where the drunks and gamblers gathered. We would raid those places at odd hours and close them down. The trademark green saris we wore became a sort of brand for our gang and soon errant men would run when they saw us approach with our lathis. Our modus operandi is simple. We raid the gambling and drinking dens; tear up their playing cards and smash their bottles of hooch. And, of course, warn them sternly.

In the past year since we began our drive, I won’t say that the problem is fully eradicated but many men have now stopped drinking and gambling their money away. Instead they focus their lives on earning money for their families. Needless to say the women in the village are happier and their lives less stressful.
Alcoholism and gambling have ravaged our village, where most people are labourers. Domestic violence and crimes against women was also quite common.

But now things are improving and neighbouring villages are also beginning to follow our example and set up “green gangs”. A few months back the inspector of the local police station was so impressed that he appointed some of us as “police mitr” (friend of the police) and extended help if we informed the local police of any instances of illegal gambling, domestic abuse, and so on. We soon reported three cases of domestic violence and the police have put three men behind bars.

During the last assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, we used to walk around villages in our area with Dholaks (drums) and Manjeeras (cymbals) singing folks songs that urged people to come out to vote without any fear and let us know if anyone tried to force them to vote for a particular candidate or stop them from voting. We want to make our village completely free of drinking and gambling and help other women in the villages nearby do the same.

Green Shoots III

Green Shoots III – ‘We Rooted Out Domestic Violence’

I am a farmer, so is my husband. Our two sons work as daily wage laborers in Varanasi. Our family is a big one –with 12 members, which includes my grandchildren and daughters-in-law. For the past several years, the women of my household (and majorly of every household in the village) have been following a particular routine. Every day, we work in the farms, toil all day at home, take care of the children and then end the day with a violent spat with our drunk husbands. I decided to put an end to this. Everyday beatings cannot be a way of life.

About six months ago, I came to know about the Green Gang operating in the neighboring village of Ramasipur. I met Geeta, the leader of the gang, and shared my woes. She promised help and visited our village the next day. Since, most of the men in our village have been chronically hooked to gambling and alcohol, she did not take long to convince women to form a Green Gang here in Deora.

The Green Gang is a movement of women vigilante, who have taken it upon themselves to fight domestic violence. And the root cause of domestic violence in most villages of Uttar Pradesh is addiction to alcohol and gambling. Every evening, without fail, my husband and my son joined the gamblers at our village adda and lose all their money.

Whatever little was left, was given to us -women -which was just not enough to run the household. Domestic violence was a daily routine, irrespective of whether they won or lost at gambling. If they won, they used that money to consume more liquor and create a scene. If they lost, they abused us and beat us up if we asked for money to run the household.

With help from Geeta, the Green Gang in our village started work soon. In no time, things started to look up. Wearing green saris, we raided the addas, and chased the drunkards away. We even involved the police. Occasionally the police arrested some of the men, kept them in the lock-up overnight and released them after a stern warning.

At the village temple, many young men are made to take an oath that they will not touch alcohol or a pack of cards ever. The movement is growing. Now even my grandsons and granddaughters accompany the Green Gang on holidays and reach out to other children and urge them to ask their fathers and uncles to keep away from alcohol and gambling. I am positive that in the next few months, we will be able to uproot this malice entirely from our village.

Now my husband and my sons have shunned alcohol. They are handing over a good amount of money to us. These days, every evening I go around the village and try and educate the youth about the hazards of alcoholism and gambling. As the senior-most ‘Amma’ (motherly figure), it is my duty to do so. Deora is changing and I am optimistic that we have better things in store.

My Name Is Khan

‘My Name Is Khan, I Can’t Enter A Mosque’

Every year around August, I used to see my Hindu brothers carrying the kaanwar (a wooden pole carrying two water pots on its ends) on their shoulders for several hundreds of kilometer on foot and marveled at their faith. I would often mention this to my friends and relatives too that such dedication is laudable. I also learnt that making theses kaanwars provided livelihood to many a Muslim family in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Since my childhood, I am moved by the idea of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood and wanted to set an example towards this goodwill.

So this year, I also decided to join the pilgrim on foot and went to Haridwar in the beginning of the Hindu month of Sawan. However, I decided not to wear any saffron clothing and retained my skull cap and beard to make my point. I collected the holy water of Ganga in my kaanwar, emulating my Hindu co-pilgrims, and began my journey back to my hometown in Baghpat. Throughout my journey back home, I drew applause and the same hospitality provided to my co-pilgrims.

At every rest-camp, people would walk over to me and commended my initiative to promote the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. The approval and appreciation for my act, however, ended once I reached my hometown. Things took an ugly turn. I was physically attacked by own community members and the assailants destroyed my kaanwar. I was called names, some even declared me a kafir, an apostate, who had no place in the vicinity. I was shaken but I held on.

I had reached my hometown on Friday. When I reached the local mosque to offer ṣalāt al-jumu’ah (Friday prayers), I was surrounded by a group of irate Muslims who thrashed me and chased me away. They threatened me not to return ever to a mosque. ‘You have maligned our religion… It is better for you to go to a temple and play the bells… sing kirtans…,’ they screamed at me.

I had never imagined that my own community members and neighbours will turn against me in such a violent way. More was to follow once I reached home. Another group of angry locals gathered outside my house. They first attacked my house with stones and later some criminal element in the crowd hurled desi bombs. I was terrified and rushed to the local police station after the crowd dispersed. The media too played up the incident and police arrested two persons identified by me and locked them up.

However, both of them got bail the very next day and confronted me with new threats. I was assured by the police that they have deputed some personnel in the locality and are keeping a watch. On their assurance, I again went to the mosque today (Monday) but I was disallowed to enter the premises and I was chased away. Have I committed any sin? I feel threatened, my family unsafe and ostracised.

RTI Warriors III

RTI Warriors III – 'I Ruffled Many Feathers’

I am a resident of Rohillapur village in Noida’s Sector 132 and my father is the village pradhan (elected head). Being aware of the problems plaguing the locals, especially farmers, and the Noida Authority officials turning a deaf ear to them, I couldn’t just sit and do nothing. My journey of filing Right to Information (RTI) pleas started five years ago, in 2013, when I was a college student. I knew little about how to work this public weapon but had heard a lot about its efficacy in the media.

I was determined to fight for the people of the rural Noida which was not made of glass-and-concrete buildings. I listed the problems in the area and then began to ascertain, through RTI, who was accountable for the sorry state of affairs. It was slow work but paid off. After initial success of my RTI petitions, I was motivated to probe larger issues.

I learnt how to use RTI to fight corruption; for instance how to weed out the parking mafia in the region that was fleecing people with their arbitrary rates that varied according to the whims of each contractor. Thanks to the effort of my multiple RTI pleas, the Noida authority fixed the parking rate and the revenue collected this way goes directly to the authority, instead of the contractor.

Of course, I made enemies in my pursuit of a better Noida. My efforts had struck down the extra income of many senior officers and the parking mafia. While I did not receive any threats directly, I was warned by a senior authority official to stay alert as I had upset many powerful people. A relative of mine was told by a private contractor on social media to inform me to stay away from the “activism”.

Not that I cared much about such threats. All these years, I have worked not for myself but in national interest and to empower and inform people about the RTI Act. I consider this power to be one of the most powerful rights that Indian citizens have in the country’s recent history. At the same time, I have observed how Public Information Officers (PIOs) are often reluctant to divulge crucial information and try to delay or transfer the query to another department.

But if the applicant is focused enough, the details so revealed often end up being shocking. Through RTI applications, I once exposed a fake web page running in the name of the President of India which was pushing a communal propaganda. It was soon deactivated. My queries to the government have also forced policymakers to provide relief to the affected in many cases.

All these years, I have worked to dig out the truth from the huge government machinery and have penned and summarised my labour in a booklet titled ‘A Common Man’s Guide to the RTI Act, 2005’ that is available free of cost.

More From The Series

RTI Warriors II – ‘Fighting Evil Is Never Easy’

  I was in Class VI, when I was attacked and my family was threatened by a group of miscreants.

The reason: we wanted the cruelty inflicted on animals for training to end. It was a scary experience, the threats shook us but my father was undeterred. In Faridabad, Haryana, being an animal rights activist couldn’t be easy. But then, challenging the corrupt and standing up against age-old discriminatory practices have never been easy anywhere in the country.

Right to Information (RTI) came handy in our fight for the voiceless. We found it to be an important tool that could bring about change. My series of RTIs against kalandars (a term for street performers, acrobats and animal trainers), who illegally captured bears and tortured them to perform dance on the street, had irked the community. Though we managed to stop the practice and got many bears rescued, we had ruffled many a feather.

A group of irate kalandars attacked our home and threatened my family to leave the place immediately or worse would follow. These threats got louder and scarier by each passing day. Finally, my father, Naresh Kadyan, who is also an animal activist, decided to sell our bungalow in Faridabad. We moved to a better and a more secure residential apartment in Delhi.

Our new house was small but safe. For the next couple of years, it became our battleground for our fight against the system. I have been filing RTIs related to animal cruelty and human rights violation. I consider myself fortunate that my efforts have yielded positive results. One of my RTI applications resulted in ban of quail farming.

The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), which provided financial assistance to beneficiaries willing to take up quail farming, decided to withdraw fund quail farms. In 2013, I took up the cause of saving elephants. Elephants in India are being treated like cows, buffalos and goats. This has led to rampant trading of elephants much like cattle.

The pachyderm belongs to the wild and trading them is a violation of their rights. The animal has been killed by speeding trucks in NCR. We are fighting to save them through multiple means: from RTIs to crowd petitioning via Change.org. Meanwhile, I got married and have moved to Ahmedabad but my mission continues.

Of late, I realised that getting information through RTIs is getting more difficult. Our bureaucracy has devised new ways to circumvent, twist and hide the truth. At the legislature level, too, attempts are being made to dilute its provisions. Clearly, some truths are bothersome to people in power. In spite of the hurdles, I know this is the purpose of my life. If babus find a way to avert disclosure of truth, we shall find another way to uncover it. This is an ongoing battle. We are at it.