India must stop living in denial

In today’s connected world where figures, images and voices are a click of the mouse away, do we really expect the world to believe that India is all malls, highways and high-rises. Namita Bhandare writes.

HT Image

Of all the madcap ideas to come out of the Commonwealth Games, possibly the worst is the one to hide away the city’s beggars. Here’s why.

Newspapers have been reporting that many beggars have either been arrested or forced off the streets. Unsightly slums are being hidden behind banners of Shera, our ironically chosen mascot whose big smile surely belies his endangered status. And migrant labourers, many of them roped in to complete unfinished works, are being told to steer clear of public sight.

Much of the rationale for hosting these hugely expensive games is that it will showcase an emerging, confident country. That’s largely why China hosted an Olympics in Beijing and followed it up less than two years later with an expo in Shanghai. And look at the dividends. Despite its human rights record and despite its continuing censorship of online information, China can bully Barack Obama into putting off meeting the Dalai Lama in Washington and issue firmans to Norway against awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to any of the Chinese dissidents on this year’s list.

Let’s not single out India for trampling over the human rights of its poor. China razed entire blocks of housing and displaced thousands of people before its 2008 Beijing bash. Even democracies have not been immune to whitewashing. Atlanta in 1996 carted off 9,000 people, mostly black, for petty offences and Sydney before its 2000 Olympics passed laws criminalising homelessness and begging in tourist areas.

India’s eagerness to put on its best party suit is understandable even if it is a bit of a joke given the huge rips in it caused by collapsing ceilings and gamboling dogs. The damage has been done by photographs of water-logged basements and paan-stained apartments and headlines with words including ‘uninhabitable’, ‘corrupt’ and ‘inept’. How do we gloss over it? By hiding away the poorest of our urban poor we are hoping, stupidly, to present our own version of India’s truth. In today’s connected world where figures, images and voices are a click of the mouse away, do we really expect the world to believe that India is all malls, highways and high-rises – or to use a term that is out of fashion, India is shining, and only shining?

You can hide the beggars but not the statistics. What banner can disguise the cold fact that 410 million of our citizens live on less than $1.25 a day? Where do we tuck away our rank, 134 out of 182 countries, in human development indices? And do we pretend that our problems — beggars and poverty, hunger and illiteracy, gender discrimination and lack of access to medical care, Kashmir and Naxalism — simply don’t exist?

But if there’s awareness of our problems, there is also worldwide recognition for our achievements in medicine, technology, finance and literature. This past week, we were told that the 100 richest Indians share between them a wealth of over $300 billion. American politicians might rail against outsourcing jobs to India but American business follows the money. As long as we deliver, they will come — and never mind the smell and the sight of slums that greet them on the road from Mumbai airport.

By shipping out beggars, we have actually lost an opportunity. It is the opportunity to tell the world yes, we have problems; no, we are not proud of them; and yes, we will tackle them head-on. Underlining that message is another one of telling the world: please stop talking down to us. When President Obama links Kashmir with a permanent seat for India at the United Nations, we should — like China does on so many of its internal issues — be able to tell him to back off.

If we want our place on the high table of international affairs, we cannot dither or be diffident. Yet, I can’t help asking just one last question: how much of the reported Rs 30,000 crore that we are spending on CWG would it have taken to find a more permanent solution to the problem of slums and urban poverty? And how long do you expect the camouflage to last?

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer n The views expressed by the author are personal

The irresistible charm of solo travel

At 60 she learned to cycle. At 62 she became a long distance runner, running 50 km+ distances. And at 64, she took her first solo holiday to Kashmir.

Pushpa Bhatt, now 67, says she has a “good 25 years ahead” to go to places she’s never been. In the past, she’s travelled alone on work trips or with her daughter or in groups. But now the single mother who’s worked hard and invested wisely, has her priorities sorted—like running 72 km through the Khardung La mountain pass in Ladakh last year with plans to run again this September.

Representational Image (Source: Unsplash)

For Bhatt, like many other women who travel solo, the value of travel became irresistible during the pandemic. Then, she spent two months by herself in Manali at a homestay; her daughter accompanied her for eight days before heading back to Mumbai. When restrictions eased, Bhatt packed her bags for a 10-day holiday to Kashmir, staying at Airbnbs, travelling by car to Pahalgam, where she hiked, Gulmarg and Sonmarg and having the time of her life. “Of course I ran everywhere I went in shorts. Nobody batted an eyelid.”

Growing trend

A post-pandemic desire to see the world after months of restricted or no travel, the growth of short-term home-stays, and the spurt of women-focused travel companies have all contributed to the rise of the solo woman traveller. Many opt for it also because of the flexibility it offers.

Solo domestic travel grew by 120% in the second quarter of 2022 compared to the same period in 2019, points out Garima Pandey, co-founder of Wandering Jane, a Bengaluru-based company that curates group and individual trips for women.

So strong is the trend towards solo travel globally that Airbnb, which found that over 50% of nights booked for long-term stays during the first quarter of 2022 were by solo travellers, launched a safety product aimed specifically for this traveller in June 2022.

Pandey, a former banker with engineering and MBA degrees, saw an opportunity in starting a company that would cater to women who are financially independent and feel no guilt about spending on themselves, whether it’s buying a car, a house or a holiday. These women are ready to travel alone, but have concerns, and rightly so, about safety. “So we said, what if we could provide women who travel solo with local experts who could take her around?” says Pandey.

Wandering Jane’s clients have included a visually challenged woman who wanted to visit Ooty and a woman whose company had given all employees time off to rest and recharge to avoid burnout.

Why travel solo?

For personal growth and to become self-sufficient, says chef Priyasha Saluja who has been travelling solo since she was 19. “Traveling solo has made me stronger as a person,” she says. “When you travel alone, you’re forced to make an effort to get to know other people, to get out of your bubble and interact with people from all over and from all walks of life.”

Starting with her first solo trip to Goa, Priyasha has spent six weeks backpacking in south India, been all over Kerala and returned to Goa several times.

Former journalist Priyali Sur’s first solo trip was to Vietnam at a time when, she says, she was going through a personal crisis and wanted time alone to think. “I loved it,” she says. What followed were solo trips within India—Dharamsala, Shillong and Pondicherry. Her experiences have so far all been good, she says.

In March this year, Deepika Verma who runs a luxury homestay in Uttarakhand took her first solo trip, a five-day trek, around Binsar where she stayed at homes in different villages. “Amazing,” is how she describes the experience. “I’ve lived in hostels all my life so I get along well with people.” The trip was organised through Village Ways, a company that invites you to “see real India through village eyes”.

The safety factor

Representational Image (Source: Unsplash)

Safety is a chief concern of women who travel alone with 65% of female travellers worldwide worrying about personal safety, according to Statista.

With good reason. In April, a man in Jodhpur flashed his genitals to a Korean blogger while she had her camera out. She put up the video on social media, leading to the arrest of the man. Earlier, in March, videos of a Japanese tourist surrounded by a mob in Delhi wanting to play Holi went viral. And in December another South Korean blogger was harassed by two men on a motorbike in Mumbai.

Travel writer Shunali Khullar Shroff who travels alone for work and fun, has some common-sense do’s and don’ts. Do not venture out at night, unless it’s with a trusted local. A good taxi driver can make all the difference—but do not hire one without proper checks and references. Let your hotel staff know when you’re going out, where and when you expect to be back. And carrying a book can be useful if you are self-conscious about eating alone at a restaurant or want to fend off unwanted conversation.

In addition to not venturing out alone at night, Priyali adds: Choose hotels or homestays that have good reviews. Make sure it is located in a safe neighbourhood. Do not engage with people who are forcefully trying to engage with you (and this holds true for women as well as men). And though she’s never needed it, she does carry a pepper spray just in case.

Be mindful of the local culture, carry a list of local contacts, if you’re planning to hike, make sure you have an offline map in case you lose network coverage, carry basic medicines and first aid, says Pandey.

In a country where it’s still uncommon to see a woman eat alone at a restaurant, or even go to the movies on her own, the sight of a women travelling alone for fun is uncommon. “We’re still not a country where we let women be free,” says Priyasha. “But when you travel alone you see how people are good and will go out of their way to help you. It changes you as a person.”

In numbers

36% of respondents in a survey by Feminism in India who had experienced online harassment took no action at all; 28% said they had intentionally reduced their online presence after suffering online abuse.

Source: Feminism in India, Online violence against women in India

Rest in power

Queen of rock‘n’roll. Grammy-winning music icon. Survivor of an abusive marriage. The woman who taught Mick Jagger to dance. The tributes won’t stop rolling for Tina Turner. “My beloved queen” said Beyonce. Raw, powerful, stoppable, eulogised Barack Obama. The New York Times waxed eloquent. Reuters had a timeline of her life.

But it was NASA that went where nobody else had gone before with a closeup of a cluster of tightly-packed stars seen by the Hubble telescope with a longish caption that began: “Simply the best”.


Seen and heard

“We thought, with all our medals, that we would be heard. But the reality is different.”

Bajrang Punia (Source: PTI)

Olympic medal-winning wrestler Bajrang Punia spoke to Hindustan Times after over a month of sitting in protest with fellow wrestlers, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat against Wrestling Federation of India boss Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh who has been accused of sexual harassment by seven women, including a minor.

The long(ish) read

You’d be forgiven for assuming that the romantic kiss as we know it originated in the land of the Kama Sutra. The oldest written evidence of the kiss has, so far, gone back 3,500 years to a Bronze Age manuscript from India. But on Thursday, an article in Science established humanity’s first recorded kiss, 4,500 years ago to ancient Mesopotamia. The written description of that moment can be found in cuneiform script, etched onto a clay tablet, some 500 years later.

Why the interest in an exchange of saliva? To understand one of the side-effects—not breathlessness and racing hearts—but the considerably more prosaic spread of disease.

Read more in the Smithsonian magazine here.

News you may have missed

Love, interrupted

A BJP leader in Uttarakhand has had to postpone his daughter’s wedding. Why? Because her choice of a bridegroom who happens to be Muslim has led to a furore online. Offline, men carrying banners of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal carried out protests and burnt effigies in Pauri Garhwal on May 19.

Yashpal Benam who is the chairman of the Pauri Municipal Corporation and a former MLA made it clear that his daughter had his blessings. “Our children are free to marry whoever they want,” he said. Despite this, he’s had to postpone the nuptials. “This decision has been taken so that there is a happy and harmonious environment,” he said.

…And the good news

Of the 933 candidates who cleared the UPSC exams to become civil servants, 320, or 34 per cent—the highest ever—are women. Women also took the first four ranks and among the top 20, a dozen are women.


In the US, a new movement to create “menopause-friendly workplaces” is catching on, reports New York Times. Taking a cue from Britain where over 50 organisations including HSBC and Unilever are certified as menopause-friendly, New York City mayor Eric Adams promised earlier this year to “change the stigma around menopause”. Read more here.

LGBTQI+ merch has offended Target store customers across the US to such an extent that the retailer has had to remove some clothing, books, music and home furnishing, part of its Pride Collection, apparently to avoid confrontation with customers and ensure employees’ safety and well-being, a company spokesperson said.

In Malaysia, where same-sex relationships are still illegal, 164 rainbow coloured Swatch watches were seized by authorities.

The ghost of Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier who died of apparent suicide in jail after being convicted for sex trafficking minor girls, was, like Banquo’s ghost, sighted again. The Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates had an affair with a Russian woman, Mila Antonova around 2010. Epstein knew about it and apparently sent a threatening email to Gates in 2017 after failing to get Gates to cough up funds to set up a charitable fund by Epstein.

Freewheeling women

Can we reimagine ways in which the humble bicycle can improve mobility for older women?

India’s heaving metropolises are simply not designed for women. The focus on multi-lane highways and flyovers ignores women—and the differently abled and elderly. The metro rail does provide a speedy commute; what’s lacking is last-mile connectivity and affordability (HT PHOTO)

As she wheels her cycle out to get to work, Tara ignores the sniggers from neighbours in the densely populated locality of Delhi’s Neb Sarai where she lives. “Is this any age to be on a cycle?” they scoff.

The 40-year-old mother of two, who uses only one name, really couldn’t care. The cycle is her ticket to employment and the wife of an autorickshaw driver certainly needs the extra income.

The cycle means she no longer has to walk two km each way to get to work as a part-time cleaner. It means she doesn’t have to waste time waiting for buses that don’t always stop. It means she no longer gets yelled at by her employers for being late, again.

“Managing my time has become easier,” says Tara who was gifted a cycle last year by Greenpeace India under a scheme, Power the Pedal, designed to both improve mobility among low-income, marginalized women and promote cleaner environment.

The bicycle has long established its cred for gender empowerment. In 2006, when Bihar became the first state to fund cycles for girls in secondary school, enrolment shot up by 32%. With more girls in school, there was a corresponding fall in early marriage and pregnancy.

The Bihari model has now been adopted in some form in states from Assam to Rajasthan. Seven African nations, starting with Zambia, have a version of it.

Now, a group of people are asking: Can we reimagine ways in which the humble bicycle can improve mobility for older women?

It’s an important question. Increased mobility leads to more inclusive cities, ones where women can participate more fully in the workforce. And it’s a win-win; a recent study by TERI estimated that if bicycles were to replace two and four wheelers for shorter commutes, it can result in an annual benefit of ₹1.8 trillion.

India’s heaving metropolises are simply not designed for women. The focus on multi-lane highways and flyovers ignores women — and the differently abled and elderly. The metro rail does provide a speedy commute; what’s lacking is last-mile connectivity and affordability.

The Delhi government’s bus fare waiver to women passengers since 2019 is welcome. But, says Tara, bus drivers don’t always stop especially when they see a bunch of (non-paying) women passengers. Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted about this recently and said drivers will face “severe action” for not stopping for women.

Research tells us men and women access public transport in different ways. Men tend to commute longer distances, usually point-to-point, to work and back. Women choose to walk if the distances are shorter or, when they use public transport, do so for more frequent, shorter trips that combine multiple tasks like going to the market before picking up the kids from school.

“We need to change the way we are developing city infrastructures,” says Avinash Chanchal, campaign manager for Greenpeace India.

Since it launched Power the Pedal early in 2022, Greenpeace India has distributed 800 cycles in Delhi and Bengaluru. In Kerala, women from Kudumbashree, the women’s collective that celebrates 50 years this year, will be training to commute to work on cycles. In Odisha, the government has announced that it will be giving out bicycles to women’s self-help groups.

The cycle is a starting point in a long journey of questions. The old cliché about teaching a man to fish certainly holds true for teaching a woman to cycle. It not only literally frees her from home, it frees her to exercise agency.

At a basement in Neb Sarai, Tara meets other beneficiaries of the scheme every month. From safer roads and the need for dedicated cycle tracks; from concerns about water and electricity to their childrens’ education, everything is up for discussion.

And, yes, many voice their annoyance about the comments they have to hear while cycling to work. But, laughs Tara, “It’s keeping me fit and healthy.” Who can argue with that?

Namita Bhandare writes on gender.

The views expressed are personal