Category: Journalism

Women at work

She walks around in clothes that comfort her. Style to her means nothing. Comfort trumps everything else. No pretenses. When she talks, you know she means business.

Of course you know she is the most successful woman or man around. She does not have to scream that aloud. Her persona speaks for itself. Respect is something she instinctively commands. You want to respect her because you know she is a cut above the rest. And yet it all comes at a price, a price she has chosen to pay. The cost is that of her ‘personal life’. Work fulfills her but does she want more? I would never know. But do I want more? Yes.

I diva pic

Since the time I walked out of college and into the professional world I knew I was ambitious. I also I love babies and flowers and all things ‘girly’. What I want to know is if it is possible to have both in life? Can you be an extremely successful woman and still manage to have a loving family? A happy marriage, kids and all that jazz? Or does success in one sphere mean that you have to pay a heavy cost in the other?

I find myself asking these questions because the more I look around the more I see successful woman who are single or divorced. Why can a woman not have the best of both the worlds? Or do they have it and I have not seen enough of the ones who have it. Why do all the successful men have beautiful wives and not the other way around? Am I judging too much? Yes. However these are questions to which I find myself seeking answers to.

Since the time I entered the world of media I noticed that most of the new recruits were women and yet most of the seniors I reported to were men. Where did all the women go? If they joined in such large numbers how did so little of them survive?

I know the answer is a combination of extremely demanding hours and the call of domesticity. Then again the hours were as much demanding for the men, but they have gone on to occupy higher designations. Except the few women who turned out to be the exceptions.

And then I find myself wanting to know if I want to be that exception. All I know is that I am ambitious. I also know I do not want to be a man to be successful. All things ‘girly’ are what I like and my ambition seeks to go hand in hand with my femininity. Comfort above all else is not me. Pink nail polish? Oh yes, that’s me. Will I find a place somewhere then? When I read this few years down the line I hope I have.


This piece was printed in the Februrary 2013 issue of the magazine ‘One India One People’ in it’s environment section.

Living on the periphery of a metro’s garbage dump yard entails a life that is intrinsically linked to other people’s waste. Life near Chennai’s Kodungaiyur garbage dump yard is no different. Kids drop out of school to look for usable materials in the waste while men turn to alcohol for solace. Disha Shetty brings you a slice of life from Kodungaiyur garbage dump yard, a part of Metropolitan Chennai.

When you clean your houses you smugly dispose the garbage into the dustbin. That garbage is then collected by the municipal corporation of your city, if you are living in a metro, and then transferred to another location.

But where is that other location? Where does the journey take your city’s garbage to? Who bears the onus of ensuring that all the toxic waste does not enter your ‘clean’ environment again?

Gokul picking out iron from garbage
Gokul picking out iron from garbage

If you are living in Chennai, the garbage from your home most likely ends in a place like Kodungaiyur. Kodungaiyur in northern Chennai is one of the areas where the city sends its garbage packing to. Here people who have no choice or the economic clout bear the brunt of someone else’s toxic waste. Then there are those who try to make a living out of scavenging your waste. At garbage dump yards like this your garbage becomes the source for somebody’s livelihood.

Living on waste
Amongst the scavengers who look for recyclable materials in dump yards like the one at Kodungaiyur, many are children between the age of 8-18. Gokul is one such 14-year-old boy. He speaks fluent Tamil, is boisterous and like most children working in the dump yard, is an orphan. He wakes up at 5 am and makes his way to the garbage dump yard that is a stone’s throw away from his house in Panakkara Nagar slum.

He spends his days looking for scraps of metals and plastic in the mountains of garbage that Chennai city generates on a daily basis – 3,000 tonnes of it to be precise. He mentions as a matter of fact that he had to drop out of his school when his father died a few years back due to excessive drinking. Scavenging garbage is the only thing he and many others in Panakkara Nagar know.

The scavengers look for metals like iron, aluminium and copper that can be recycled. There are different prices set by the market forces for different metals. For every kilogram of copper, they earn Rs 350 while iron is sold for Rs 18. One kilogram of plastic collected from the dump yard, referred to as ‘masala’ fetches them around Rs 30.

Karthik is a teenager studying in class 12 and wishes to pursue medicine. In spite of working in the garbage dump yard he is one of the few who have managed to continue their education. Many others are not so lucky. They find themselves uncared for much like the city’s garbage that they live next to. On rainy days they wade through water mixed with garbage and sewage. On sunny days they head to find pieces of scraps that will buy them their daily bread and butter.

Not on my land!
The conflict between the residents living near a dump yard with the local municipal corporation is common to all metros because of the health hazards. However, the local corporations fail to come up with an amicable solution to the problem. In Chennai, the residents in Kodungaiyur have been protesting that the garbage dump yard be shifted away from the place. They complain of severe respiratory problems due to the close proximity of the dump yard to residential premises. Their fear for their health is not unfounded.

Community Environmental Monitoring, a Chennai-based environment NGO along with Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) had sent samples taken from Kodungaiyur in April 2012 to test at the Colombia Analytical Services in California. Residents complained of problems due to the thick smoke that was coming from multiple sites within the dump yard. Garbage was regularly burnt to accommodate newer waste materials that a metro like Chennai continued to churn out.

The results showed the presence of 19 chemicals. Three of these chemicals namely 1-3 Butadiene, Benzene and Chloromethane are known carcinogens. The level of these carcinogens was found to be higher than what the US Environmental Protection Agency considers to be safe. Fifteen of the other 16 chemicals targeted the respiratory system, which explained the symptoms experienced by the residents.
Living with splitting headaches and the stench of garbage is a part of the daily life of Kodungaiyur residents, a part that they hope to get rid of.

The problem
Interacting with these kids threw up startling facts. Gokul said, pointing to a groundnut plant that grew on a mountain of garbage, that he ate them. He explained, “Depending on the season, plants like tomato and groundnut grow on fresh garbage which we eat.” ‘Fresh’ garbage was used in reference to organic waste that had been recently dumped. This waste would disintegrate in a short time during which small plants grew on it.

How can metal be sorted from the humungous pile of garbage that is dumped in the yard one might wonder. Karthik’s reply gave an ingenious solution to that query. He said, “We burn the garbage to locate metals. When there is metal inside a pile of garbage the colour of the flame changes. Depending on the colour we can identify which metal it is.”

A child segregating metals that are of value
A child segregating metals that are of value

So what is going wrong here? According to Dharmesh Shah, India coordinator for GAIA the problem is our production system which creates waste that cannot be easily disposed off. He says, “Our approach to the whole issue is wrong. Which community will be okay with living with a garbage dump? Landfills can never be a permanent solution.”

Landfills make the land untenable for any other purpose. There is a risk that the ground water can get dangerously polluted if toxins seep deep into the earth. At Kodungaiyur, garbage was regularly burnt to make space. The residual ash is highly toxic as it contains the remnants of concentrated chemicals. The huge risk to the environment and human life is obvious.

To weed out the problem from its roots Shah believes that it is essential to hold the producers responsible for their products.

Sights and smell of garbage dump yard
Kodungaiyur is one of the three garbage dump yards that Chennai’s waste finds itself at. The other ones currently in use are in Perungudi and Pallikaranai. Four more sites have been identified for what the Chennai Corporation calls ‘Solid Waste Management’ project. In a layman’s term – a garbage dump yard.

Ideally every time garbage is dumped it is supposed to be covered with a layer of soil. At Kodungaiyur the sight that greets the eyes is of hills of garbage that are several feet high. Corporation workers who are in charge of ensuring that the dumping process takes place smoothly are expected to report to work at the crack of the dawn. On most days activity starts early and smoke emanating from burning garbage engulfs the surrounding area.

At the garbage dump yard one can see bio medical waste being openly burnt. Gokul and Karthik pointed out to a pile of metal rejects that had come from hospitals. This formed a part of many such hazardous items found here. The scavengers worked without any protective gear. Karthik said that 50 families living in Panakkara Nagar directly depended on the garbage dump yard to make their living. Many others worked in the associated recycling industry.

Corporation dithers

Following a court order the Chennai Corporation has given instructions to stop the burning of the garbage inside Kodungaiyur. On the other hand four new sites have been identified for its ‘solid waste management’ project. One of the locations is in Kuthambakkam, a place that its ex-Panchayat leader Ramaswamy Elango has converted froma backward to a model village with focus on self sufficiency.

The question that Kuthambakkam’s residents now ask is: Is it right to simply shift the waste from one person’s backyard to another?

So what are the alternatives?
Experts agree that segregation of garbage is an important step that has to be taken even though the logistics of implementing it can be cumbersome. Shah says, “The segregation of garbage has to happen at the source itself. Once that is done the wet garbage can be disposed in an open unused land as close to the source as possible.” The pits where the garbage will be dumped can be converted into sources of biogas generation.

Bangalore’s city corporation in October 2012 made it compulsory for residents to segregate waste at source. This will also ensure that recyclables do not find themselves into the organic garbage. In Pune, the city corporation roped in rag pickers in a venture where it partnered with a social enterprise called SWACH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling). This initiative not only ensured that corporation saved money in the collection of garbage but helped the rag pickers earn a better living as well.

For a place like Kodungaiyur which has been witnessing massive protests from the residents the only alternative is to carry out bio mining. Shah says, “The waste can be excavated for useful metals and the rest can then be sent to a quarry.” Bio mining though would entail high costs.

Etching out an existence
All was not grim though at Kodungaiyur. Gokul cheerfully narrated, “Once a man actually found gold while looking for metals. He did not know what to do with so much money so he went to an alcohol shop and offered to buy it!” The other kids with Gokul and Karthik roared with laughter at the story and continued pointing out to different aspects of their ‘workplace’.

The story however highlighted another social issue that India’s poor grapple with- alcoholism. Almost all the children had firsthand experience with alcoholic fathers and alcoholism only added to their woes.

As I left Kodungaiyur the group of boys had an advice to give me. Drink complan and exercise more they said referring to my short frame. Poor and devoid of education they certainly were yet they have learnt how to make the most of the waste that has come their way.

This is the interview that I did with Mr R Elango which appeared in the December 2012 issue of the magazine One India One People.

“We are trying to resist urbanization,
but the city will eat up the village sooner or later”

Scientist, Panchayat leader, social worker and an inventor –Rangasamy Elango wears many hats. Hailing from a socially oppressed caste he fought his way up to be an engineer and hold a government job as a scientist at the Central Electrochemical Research Institute. He later quit his job to become a panchayat leader in 1996 and has since focused his energy on developmental work in his village. As the force behind making his village Kuthambakkam that lies to the north of Chennai, a model town, he shares how communities can transform themselves. In a conversation with Disha Shetty, he talks about his efforts to now divert attention to the two major crises in Indian villages – power and sanitation.
Elango is the recipient of ‘the One India One People Outstanding Indian Award’ in 2009.
R Elango 3
Elango interacting with students on a field trip to Kuthambakkam village near Chennai

What was your family’s reaction when you decided to quit your job?
I was a scientist at the Central Electrochemical Research Institute in Chennai. Village issues and development activities was something that I was involved in since I was 18 years old. I visited my village every weekend even when I was working in Chennai or once a month when I was in Karraikudi (near Chennai). So my family was not very surprised when I took the decision. My parents were disappointed as I was an engineer and had worked hard to reach a position that I was now quitting. The real question was what we would do for a living since I was married and had a family to take care of. My wife was pursuing her studies and we decided that once she completes her Masters in Chemistry and gets a job, I would quit mine. In 1994 I quit my job.

What drove you to stand for the panchayat elections in 1996?
I was involved in community work and had contacts with government as well as bank officials but I was just a volunteer. I realised that to make a greater amount of change I will need power. It was a mere coincidence that panchayat elections were just round the corner. I did not see it as a major change but as a part and parcel of my life. For my wife, parents and extended family, my decision was not unexpected. Majority of the people in my village were very encouraging, however, there were some people who who were not so confident if I would be able to achieve much.

What were the issues that Kuthambakkam was facing when you took over?
Kuthambakkam is spread over 4,000 acres of land and has a population of 6,000 people. It is lush green with a natural aquifer. In 1996 Kuthambakkam was like any other village with proximity to Chennai being its only advantage. The land was fertile but agriculture was not well developed while the road connecting the village to the state highway was in a bad shape. On the social side the village had a 60% dalit population and clashes between different castes were common. Illicit liquor brewing was widespread as a result of which most of the men were alcoholics and wife beating was common. There was a lot of social unrest. There was poverty as a result of which the villagers were involved in illicit trading and sand mining as well.

What were your solutions to deal with the issues?
The 73rd amendment to the Constitution gave a lot of powers to the village panchayat. I was the president of a strong panchayat as a result of this amendment. I went through the Act in detail and then tried to use the provisions given to us.

Elango receiving the ‘One India One People’ Outstanding Indian Award’ in 2009 from former External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna

I activated the Gram Sabha in our village which was basically a meeting of all the voters in the village. We discussed the issues of the people, their aspirations and dreams. We made a five year plan based on this, which was further broken down into a annual plan. This kind of planning helped us visualise all that we needed to do, identify our strengths and weaknesses as well as plan where the money could be brought in from. More and more people joined us and within the next 1-2 years our village started getting a facelift.
We followed complete transparency in the working of the panchayat. During every gram sabha meeting we distributed the printouts with details about the panchayat’s income and expenditure. This also ensured that there is no room for any of the ward members to tamper with the finances and cheat people.

Did you have a particular place in mind that you wanted to replicate?
There were many model villages in Kerala. Villages like Vallikkunnu and Kalacheri were our models. We also visited Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi and Nanaji Deshmukh’s Chitrakoot. We used our understanding of those villages to bring about change in Kuthambakkam. We realised that by people’s participation every one rupee worth funding that we get can be translated into results worth two rupees. Looking at our efforts even the government began to support us with funds.

What kinds of schemes were implemented in your village?
The government in Tamil Nadu started an initiative called ‘We for ourselves’ (Nammaka Naamme). In this initiative the panchayat collected 25% of the funds while the government pooled in the rest of the 75%. People contributed their money, labour and materials for the developmental work. This way we deepened the ponds and built roads. For the construction work we did not rely on any contractor rather we mobilised our own people. This way infrastructure was also built and people found jobs.
In 1999 after two and a half years of effort government sanctioned funds for a project called ‘Samathuvapuram’ (Equal living). Under this project 50 twin houses were built where a Dalit family was on one side and a non Dalit family lived on the other side. The two families lived in adjoining houses. This way we ensured thorough mixing of different castes as a result of which caste clashes came down drastically. The ‘Samathuvapuram’ model was then replicated across Tamil Nadu. We stopped illicit arak brewing too. We were unable to ban it but it is not as freely available as it used to be. This reduced the group clashes and within three to four years people saw a huge change in our village.

You have started a Panchayat Academy in your village. Can you share with us how that came into being?
In my second term in 2001, I won with a huge majority and got over 90% of the votes. I started thinking that if we can bring about so many changes in our village in such a short time then why can we not do so in our neighbouring villages? That is when the idea of Panchayat Academy took root. I travelled extensively and networked with other panchayat leaders. The Panchayat Academy is not a classroom but it is a format where one brother teaches another. We invited those interested to come and stay in our village for three to four days and study the developmental models. It is like a platform where good practices and ideas are shared between different panchayat leaders.

How did your background as an engineer and scientist help?
My background in engineering helped me to understand the problems at the grassroots while my position as a leader gave me an opportunity to rectify them. I am now working on energy auditing models. We have already changed all our street lights to CFLs and are soon going to replace them with LED lights. That will drastically bring down the energy consumption and save almost 70% of the energy. The rest of the 30% can be met with solar energy. I have developed energy saving fans that can run on solar energy. I am currently also working on biogas and biomass as sources of fuel in a village.
There is a myth that alternative energy is very expensive. A centralised grid system will not work for solar energy or any form of alternate energy. It has to be done in a de-centralised way where each house has a small solar panel for itself.

Have you faced any opposition in your village or resistance from the authorities?
I reflect the aspirations of the villagers and hence there was no opposition from them for our work. The authorities on the other hand insist on getting the procedures right. I have been penalised several times for violating the procedures. I have even argued in court saying that though the procedures were violated it was to get the work done. One cannot endlessly wait for permissions. Since all the work is done transparently even they know that nothing wrong was done.

Did you have any problem from the government’s end?
The government wanted to acquire land to create a satellite township. We opposed that move, which was a huge headache as one needs a lot of money to fight in court. In 2008 the government tried to grab the panchayat land to convert it into a solid waste dumping yard. We managed to stop it after going to the court. The judgement said that it is left to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority to decide if the project is to be cleared. The new panel is yet to give its verdict but the government’s press note released in November 2012 says that they plan to resume the project. We are preparing to contest the decision in the court. The land in question is spread across 100 acres and is used for grazing of our cattle. It is also dangerously close to the Chembarambakkam reservoir that supplies water to some parts of Chennai city.

Now that you are no longer the panchayat president, what role do you play?
I am still involved in the work of the village. I am concentrating more on networking with different organisations for further development. I spend my time trying to develop energy solutions. I believe in Gandhiji’s idea of Gram Swaraj and strengthening the local economy.

What is your vision for Kuthambakkam for the future?
We are building a high school in the village. The building is under construction and we would like to extend it to a senior secondary school. I believe that since Kuthambakkam is so close to Chennai city, urbanisation will change it in the next few years. It is something that we are trying to resist but the city will eat up the village sooner or later. My focus now is on replicating the Kuthambakkam model in other villages. I want to see how fast we can replicate this model elsewhere.
Disha Shetty is pursuing a post graduate diploma in Broadcast Journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

Lush green trees, soft blowing breeze and melodious music in the air…

As one walks inside the Kalashetra Foundation in Thiruvanmiyur at Chennai, the beauty of it all sinks in. This is the location of Svanubhava 2012, a 3 day event that began on August 1st and is slated to go on till the 3rd of August.

Svanubhava is meant to be a celebration where students of art are exposed to various other art forms. However do not make the mistake of thinking that if you are not an artist then you will find yourself out of place here. If you like music and dance then this is the place to be.

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The location where the stage is set has thatched roofs with seating made out of cane. As one watches the event in this idyllic setting one finds the mood uplifted. There could not have been a more apt location to hold Svanubhava and enjoy the renderings of accomplished musicians and dance artists.

When I attended Svanubhava this morning it felt like a Mecca of art. One could gauge from the turnout that this is the city where people love music and different cultural events find ample patronage. The morning session started with Shri Ulhas Kashalkar’s soulful rendering of different ragas. I found myself enthralled by the music.

The crowd was an amalgamation of individuals from all age groups. The audience had everyone from school students to the elderly and were eager participants in the discussion that followed. Rather than going into the technical aspects of it all I will let you discover and enjoy the event for yourself.

What I can say for sure is that if you love art then this is the place to be. So do attend.

Speaking without words

Words. Sounds. Conversation.

These are things that I take for granted. I am my happiest self when I am talking the most. There is something about the act that makes me feel full of energy. But what if I had no sound? Would my conversations still remain as enthusiastic as they are now?

I got the answer to my thoughts in two parts. The first was when I witnessed a couple animatedly having a conversation at the platform of Sandhurst road station in Mumbai’s central railway line. My train had stopped there for its customary 30 seconds halt when my eyes fell on them. They were sitting on a bench on the station. They appeared to be in their early 20s and were communicating using sign language coupled with animated expressions on their faces. They were no different from any other ‘normal’ couples that dot the mega city’s landscape.

There was something very touching with what was happening in front of me. The couple was oblivious to the world around them and found no difficulty in explaining what they wanted to say to each other. My train started soon after but the images stayed with me for a long time after that.

It made me wonder why people make such a big deal out of aberrations. Considering that as humans we come in a variety of shapes and sizes including different racial backgrounds we should have been used to the diversity in nature. Why do we call it abnormal? Why is our definition of what constitutes normal no narrow?

It is not unknown that the world appears to us the way that we as individuals perceive it to be. What would be an enticing vision for one would be nothing but ordinary for another. I found the speech impaired couple having a conversation one of the most beautiful things that I have seen. I was proud of the way they relegated their handicap to the background.

The second incident or rather a pleasant experience came my way recently. While doing my reporting assignment for our news show in college I visited Balya Vidyalaya in Adyar, Chennai. Balya Vidyalaya is a school for the hearing impaired for children up to 5 years of age. They are not taught how to use sign language rather the focus is on trying to teach them how to speak. I walked into the school and interacted with the children happily studying with their extrememly patient teachers I did not feel that these children were in any way different from other tots of their age. They were as enthusiastic and hated studying as much as any 4 or 5 year old would.

Communication I have come to learn is more than just words. Some times it just takes the intent and desire to get your word across to another person. The determined ones eventually find a way with or with out words. So would I still be a good communicator if I was unable to speak? I’d like to believe that I would.

Entreprenuerial Twist

Entrepreneurs are a very inspiring bunch of people. Being brought up in a house

Image by: Stock Xchange

where both my parents hold regular jobs, business and everything associated with it was not something I knew much about. In the past few months since I began covering businesses and interviewing entrepreneurs, I have learnt and observed a lot about this group. I think there are certain things about entrepreneurs that stand out. Here is what I have observed in my short stint in this beat so far.


This is one thing that every entrepreneur whether young or old has an ample supply of. They can go on and on talking about their ventures. When they talk about their ideas for the business and share their vision with you, they almost will you to believe every word they have uttered. And guess what? You actually do. Most of the times I am so impressed by the concept and the passion the person has for the job that I find myself fervently hoping that they taste success very soon.


You will almost never find an entrepreneur without a vision. This is the hallmark of an entrepreneurial soul. He/She will always have grand plans and in their mind they have a crystal clear understanding of where they want to see their company 1,5,10 years from now. Believe me they ALWAYS have a plan. The vision may or may not culminate into a reality but it is always there.

Gender neutral

Whether it is a male or a female entrepreneur who is handling the venture, the spirit remains the same. Both of them are equally driven and passionate. Both of them can be stubborn, adamant and hard task masters when needed. I find both the sexes equally competent in the interactions that I have had with them so far. The only exception is that married woman entrepreneurs have to walk a tightrope between maintaining a balance between their personal and professional life while the family puts up with a workaholic male entrepreneur, though grudgingly.


I am yet to meet an entrepreneur who works 5 days a week. Holidays are a taboo. They will all say, “It is tough. Our families always complain that we are never around!” But does that mean that they will take a few days off? Never! Holidays are the bane of their existence. They might dream of a time off but will never do so.  So any girl reading this- Beware! You will always be secondary to his business and he is likely to shower you with gifts but not the one thing that you would desire the most- his time.


You want to learn the value of time? Ask them. They might have been the sloppiest of people while in college but not so with their business. Forget the old Hindi movies about a father lecturing the son about the value of time. They can do a 100 times better job than that.

Once you strike a conversation with an entrepreneur you will always come out of the room inspired and in awe of their vision.

Screwed Nuts N Bolts

"An idle engineer's mind leads to a screwed up blog."- Anonymous