“The heat, it makes the people lazy.”

This one is a statement I have heard a few times about Tamil Nadu. Though it is a generalisation, there are many well trodden paths of climate that lead development the wrong way.

What with Vellore’s 50 degree summer, the wall of heat itself is deadly. People can’t leave the house in summer, and the lowest temperature our coordinator has ever felt was 12 degrees Celsius. Imagine any work outside. Imagine offices without electricity. Imagine working hard and being able to give 100%. I can’t.

The temperature also contributes to a terrible water shortage. The Vellore river basin has been dry for 15years, and every summer there’s a long wait for the rains. Karnataka’s dam also has something to do with this but both states are experiencing shortage and of course the state upriver would try to compensate. Groundwater’s dried up below the government drilling capacities so only private companies can access deep groundwater supplies and drive prices sky high for the locals.

This means there’s little water for personal use and huge strain on development: Tamil Nadu is heavily dependent on its Sambar crop. There doesn’t seem much hope for change in the dried out state.

“With rain comes movement, I embrace the rain.” – Local NGO

Alcohol in India is a Whole New Concept

Alcohol has its issues worldwide, I always thought we had it bad in the West. Shows like Geordie Shore hardly encourage confidence.. Living in rural Tamil Nadu though, we’ve seen how bad alcoholism can really be.

In the UK alcohol is ingrained in our everyday lives; served in every restaurant, corner shop, and at every party way back into our childhoods. We watch our families chat over a glass of wine and turn up our noses when they let us take a sip. Two years later we’re sneaking around with a 3.5% proof alcopop thinking we’re the bomb.

Often things go horribly wrong and we all know somebody who drinks because they can’t find the will to stop. We watch as friends drown their break ups in vodka and cry outside the same retail store he works at, forcing all your other friends to leave the club before midnight. But we often ignore these things, reassuring ourselves that these occasions are rare and our warped ideas of ‘drinking in moderation’ will protect us – or at least someone else will.

Tamil Nadu isn’t like that. There are no bars or clubs around, really, and if you were to find one it would close before 11pm. The only access to alcohol is through seedy ‘wine shops’ (that don’t actually sell wine, just spirits and beers). When walking around with Indians they’ll often point out a wasteland or roadside where men go to drink.

Not only is drinking an awkward, dark thing here, as you would naturally expect there are resulting social problems. When speaking to local women in the village Battan Vattam, Alcoholism was the key issue. In one family the father earns a decent wage but spends all of it on alcohol, forcing the mother to do farming work and sustain her three children. Even then he steals from her. Alcohol carries a massive gender divide, less than 1% of women drink at all (ICMR, 2009).

“Some men will drink all day here.” – Local woman, Battan Vattam

More men drink in rural communities than urban Tamil Nadu (ICMR, 2009), suggesting serious issues amongst the 13% that drink 5-7 days a week (ICMR, 2009). But nothing’s about to change. The Wine Shop will continue selling to underage boys and the government will continue its subsidies, bringing up a new generation to keep the booze profits going. Alcohol contributes a huge 27% to Tamil Nadu’s State Revenue (Surendran, 2013). Who’s to turn good money down?

National Institute of Medical Statistics, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), 2009,
IDSP Non-Communicable Disease Risk Factors Survey, Tamil Nadu, 2007-08. National Institute
of Medical Statistics and Division of Non-Communicable Diseases, Indian Council of Medical
Research, New Delhi, India.

http://surendran.info/state-revenue-alcohol-tamilnadu

Mental Health Issues Should Not Be Spoken Of

Ironically no such statement was spoken, but that would add insult to injury when we presented our ideas for International Youth Day this Tuesday. When we wanted to celebrate the theme #MentalHealthMatters we were pretty much told not to.

Our boss would much rather see us tackle exam stress than mental illness, claiming that it was not an issue in the area. When we informed him that our needs assessments and the recent suicide suggested otherwise he shifted his argument to say that people are not interested, they don’t have local facilities, and would not turn up to counselling anyway.

Aspects of his argument may have been correct but the ethic of it was exactly what the day was designed to tackle: taboo.

People all around the world are suffering from mental illness and as you can’t read the physical symptoms, societies seem happier pretending that they aren’t there. “We have other things to think of,” “How can we understand,” and “Why should we care?”

Well the young generation should care. In fact a forward thinking attitude can work wonders and though names may not break your bones, they do have a lasting impact. We mostly communicate with people using our minds, not our fists.

I don’t care if its uncomfortable or rarely accepted, mental health is a real issue and I’m proud of our work in Nimmiyampattu yesterday.

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Some Words About India’s Religion

 

India’s huge 1.2billion population is 95% Hindi and in my past two Tamil months I’ve seen dribs and drabs of this vibrantly extravagant culture.

I don’t remember too much from my primary school education on Hinduism so I can’t say much about its practices but the basics seem to suggest that there are gods to symbolise every virtue and not even all Hindus know the names of many.

The religion seems very fluid, it lends more to a guide for living than a discipline, and different communities celebrate their own different festivals on different levels of commitment. I have a Hindu friend who ‘likes Christianity too’, so perhaps the practice of accepting many Gods allows some people a mind wide enough to accept all.

Religious conflict seems a distant issue in Tamil Nadu as I know many pluralists, atheists, and multi religious families. Though there are grand Hindu temples at every turn, the people I meet are religiously diverse and seem blissfully unaware of the raging conflicts elsewhere.

Travelling through the mountains you’ll see religious symbols drawn on high crags in white paint. These symbols bless and identify different groups living side by side with ease. When talking to some school children from Vallipattu, one boy said,

“I am a Hindu, he is a Muslim, he is a Christian, and we are all best friends.”

This post is by no means an attempt to downplay the issues of religious conflict but neither should we downplay the innate peace in most people of all nationalities and religions. Let us praise the good in mass media as much as we report the bad.

 

 

 

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A New Life Founded on Faith

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For a child the world is a wonderful place to explore through the frame of family. That frame may be any shape, size, and on the odd occasion it’s toxic. But what if that frame is shattered?

Orphans from two districts in Tamil Nadu live in Alangayam and they are the happiest children I have ever met. Taken in by the pretty houses with pillars, balconies, landscaped gardens, and smiling faces, it’s far too easy to forget why the kids are here. The place is just so warm.

The children are well looked after here, the way an orphanage should be. – A Father at the School

The orphanage takes international volunteers and funding from all over the world and the simple sign that brings them all together? Hanging around a child’s neck is a cross.

Sitting far away at home I felt unsure of the ethics of such projects. Atheist slurs of ‘brainwashing’ seemed true of a system that took bereaved children and gave them no choice about their new religion.

But what does God offer them? The glue that holds their lives together is faith. The Fathers teach them that their parents are not truly lost to them; they teach the children that strength and joy will reward them with the divine. Whether you believe in Christianity or not, just ten minutes with these children will show you its magic.

Watch as a little girl runs up gleefully to the Father with her 100% ‘superstar’ homework. It may not be her father’s praise that she receives but she’ll never stop working hard because she believes that he can see her.

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“When I Die, I Wish To Be Reborn In England.”

I have titled this post with the quote that broke my heart from the same family that melted it. After a chaotic day running round in circles after 13 year old boys at the government school I met two sisters outside.

The eldest spoke excellent English and I got into a real good conversation with her. After, I got my hair done in their bedrooms, invited for a holiday, and offered a free cat, but I can only process the amazing big issues of this conversation right now so here they are:

  1. Girls in India are severely restricted. Some married girls are not allowed out of the house or allowed to think about jobs. Others face similar oppressions from their fathers. The girls felt very privileged that they had only faced short periods of being house bound at school hostels (they couldn’t even take their rubbish out or visit their families).
  2. Access to products in Vellore district leaves a lot to be desired. The eldest girl absolutely loves western clothing and food but is only allowed to wear what she wants in the city. Also she cannot access the ingredients for western foods anywhere – even chicken is a challenge.
  3. The education system is ridiculously unfair. The poorest castes get a moderate amount of help from the government but generally the poor cannot access education. If you want to go to university you have to pay an upfront fee, if you want to choose your university outside of counselling you have to pay another fee, if you want to do all of that you need to pay an extra ‘donation’. Crazy!

So yes, I learnt a lot today about, India, people, and true generosity. I don’t care how strange the customs sometimes are to me, that’s co operation. When I see heart within the people it turns my day around.

Thank you for reading if you have any questions for me/Tamil Nadu please send them my way!

The Things We Take For Granted

Yesterday I was walking around town and stopped to buy my fifth or sixth big bottle of Coca Cola drinks for the week. 67rupees for a bottle (67p) and I handed over a 500 rupee note happily.

You may not think much of giving a fiver to a shopkeeper for a bottle of Fanta – I didn’t – but he seemed to think it was quite unreal and asked me my monthly salary.

It made me think of the things we take for granted and though I’m volunteering 3 months of my life to Tamil Nadu, my presence must appear rather cheeky to the community.

To a state where half the population earn less than a pound a day Coca Cola is a distant luxury; to some three meals a day is a distant luxury.

We don’t need to change everything about our lifestyles, and I won’t. But I’ll definitely think more about my budget after India.