People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)

This is a chance for us as volunteers to work with our partners in ways that reach beyond the measure of projects and targets but to recognize the value of people’s voices, ideas and practices at the everyday level.
Photojournalist P Sainath, whom volunteers have met at his public lectures, organized by AID and many other organizations, universities and institutes has launched a website called the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI).  It is a fascinating project and I think that there is much that we can contribute from our village visits and our collaborations with partners in rural areas.
As you may recall, our 2003 calendar featured photographs from Sainath’s  exhibition on Women and Work.  And AID first hosted a talk by Sainath when he visited the US in 1997 after publishing his collection of articles Everybody Loves a Good Drought. 

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Letter to Editor

What’s behind that glass of milk?

What’s behind that glass of milk?

6th May 2013

ANUSHA NARAIN, What’s behind that glass of milk?
The Hindu, May 4, 2013

Nutritionally, we only need to look at what the cows eat, or at least are supposed to eat – greens! We can get our calcium, iron and other nutrients directly from leafy greens rather than making the cows chew them for us. This will be better for our health and the cows can be free. As the author points out, it will be economically and ecologically better for the country as well and help ensure that everyone gets better food. Especially nursing mothers, who need to eat well and stay strong so that they can give children the milk they really need – mother’s milk, and thereby introduce their kids to a wide variety of foods rather than using milk from another animal.

Even those who aren’t vegan can benefit from reducing dairy (especially unfermented dairy) in the diet.


More on Gender Footprint … Notes from AID Conference

AID US Conference 2009, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

What happened at the gender session?    GAME:  “Gender Bender” a simple yet thought-provoking exercise spurred by one classic gender issue: “there is so much work to do!!”  Or is there?  Whose work is it?  Men’s?  Women’s?  Both / either?

Forming five groups, participants took 20 cards, on which names of various “to do” or “to be” items were printed such as Continue reading


Child’s Play

Child’s Play

23rd December 2006

Perhaps people don’t start Christmas shopping as early in India or perhaps they procrastinate just as much as people do anywhere else, and yesterday’s editorial by Arvind Gupta may actually give some people pause before frantically amassing toys for the little ones, near and dear.

Although I am naturally inclined to see that less is more, I too was beset by doubt when my daughter was born, and I saw sites and catalogs full of educational toys, stimulating paraphernalia and specialized ways to promote motor skills, sensory perception, creativity, and self-esteem. And let’s not forget brain development! Could I really say no to all of these things?

Although I didn’t shop from those catalogs, I ended up acquiring all kinds of beaded, shapey, bright & musical toys. Don’t ask me how… Of course I also found that my daughter loved most playing with the dishes, “helping” pour rice, or mixing dough. She also loved wiping tables and floors, and we could never supply her with enough clothes to wash and dry. On her insistence, we motivated ourselves to plant vegetables and flowers in the garden, for which she did a good part of the digging and most of the watering. And although lately many early child education specialists favor allowing children of even two to three years of age to use knives under supervision, we have not brought ourselves to say yes to our dd’s fervent requests to help with cutting vegetables, except with a butter knife, with which she manages to cut a tomato or two.

I’m not sure when and how we come to differentiate work and play, and see work as something we prefer to minimize but I am sure that when children show interest in work, they should not be prevented from pursuing this. So what if my one-year-old spills some beans or gets mud on her clothes? So what if it takes my three-year-old 10 minutes to measure 1 cup of urad dal and 2 cups of rice? What sense would it make for me to engage them with toys so that I could complete the work more efficiently? [And in case you’re worried about wasting food, even in cases where we cannot recover the spilt beans, I’d much rather spill a few beans than add more plastic toys to the landfills. Plus, children allowed to learn at their own pace, do spill less as they go on.]

Just around the time when my daughter was taking interest in dolls, I read something on the website of someone who sold dolls designed to free the child’s imagination by precisely not having any features to speak of. She wrote, children don’t actually need toys. They will be stimulated by the world around them, if only we give them a chance. A few toys can supplement their own imaginative play, but equating playing to toys interferes with their natural exploration. Bright plastic toys that will light up and make sounds may be exciting, but notice how fast children tire of them, or they no longer work, and more than anything else what they learn from them is how disposable they are.

That statement coming from a toy vendor herself really clarified my thinking and gave me the confidence never again just to buy a toy for the sake of it.


My year as a vegan

My year as a vegan

27th September 2006

Thanks Divya and Sree for interesting conversations that prompted me to dig out these old notes. And thanks Srihari, I now make fresh soymilk and also use the Okara in just about anything.

Reflections along the journey of responsible living.
Summer 2005

My year as a vegan is drawing to a close. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, for the most part. Though I was not absolutely strict I can honestly say that I’d have logged at least 350 vegan days by the end of the year. There were days I may have eaten a soup or bread or even a berfi where dairy figured somewhere in the list of ingredients. But I never succumbed to the temptation to have a cool cup of yougurt after a sumptuous meal of hot chapatis and spicy chole or settle in for a midnight snack of cereal and milk. In fact, these things didn’t tempt me nearly as much as I thought they would. A month into my veganhood, even pizza didn’t look that appetizing and others in my family also prefer soy kaas to the real thing.

Since I came to India, things like tofu and soy milk aren’t readily available, forget stuff like soy cheese, seitan or other vegan conveniences. Of course, in the villages, many people are involuntarily vegan since they can neither afford to feed Mama cow and Mama hen, nor pay someone else to do so and get rich predigested food in return.
Lest I falter and even think of taking dairy, all I have to see is a cow and the thought perishes. Though I adopted a vegan diet for the sake of my daughter, I think it is my own experience lactating that drives me away from the milk of other mammals. It is interesting that I cannot imagine drinking milk of other humans but have been drinking milk of cows and buffalos for years. Now that I lactate, I am so careful about my own diet that I can’t see drinking the milk of cows fed literally on junk off the streets. Let’s not even get into what factory farmed dairy cows in the US ingest. Sure, Indian cows are selective in what they dumpster-dive, but as for me, no thanks.

Mere rhetoric until my daughter turned one, the age at which the American Pediatrics Association says that it is safe to introduce cow’s milk to children. I, however wanted to wait a little longer. Since she was also old enough to want whatever I was eating, I decided that I too would go dairy-free. And as long as I was giving up my heart’s delight, yougurt, why not go ahead and be vegan. Anyway my egg consumption was limited to what my sister baked with “free-range” eggs, and it was no big deal giving those up and baking with yeast or egg substitute instead. And there I was, ready to ascend the moral high ground of one who has given up eating all animal products, all connection with the dreadful dairy and egg industries, which, let’s face, it aren’t really very kind to animals even in their free-grazing versions. “Is it vegan?” I loved to say it!

Within a month, a sore throat made me realise I wasn’t vegan. I found a source for honey harvested the old fashioned way, and learned about the process from a beekeeper in Toronto. The bees seemed pretty unconfined and unharmed to me. So while I avoid honey made from smoked-out bees, I consider honey harvested from the forest on par with maple syrup tapped from the trees. And ecologically and politically superior to sugar, which I was dismayed to find figured prominently in a lot of “vegan” recipes. Having leafed through Sidney Mintz’ “Sweetness and Power,” I consider sugar unless specified otherwise to be cruel to people and planet. It may not directly harm animals, though of course they depend on the planet too, but it certainly harms people and therefore is ruled out by my food principles. It harms the people whose countries are held hostage to it, the people who work for pittance growing it, the people who struggle to access water because it is all being drained by the sugar cane plantations, and in the way 99% of it is consumed, it hurts those who eat it.

Now that we have proved that indeed life goes on without yougurt-n-rice, which I used to eat at least twice a day, why go back? I was careful from the beginning not to declare myself vegan, simply because I wasn’t sure how long I would last. My only target was to avoid introducing other animal’s milk to my daughter for as long as mother’s milk was a significant part of her diet. I do not wish to use a cow as a wet-nurse. Since the WHO mentions 2 years as the minimum recommended duration for breastfeeding, I figured we’d think about it again when she turned 2. Till then, we learn to prepare interesting meals and snacks out of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. It forces me to be creative. I owe several new staple foods to the recipes on packages, which use common household ingredients. I learned how easy it is to make hummus, millet cereal, as well as other interesting preparations with grains and legumes. With our handy solar cooker even slow-cooking beans like garbanzos or kidney beans are a cinch, and certainly much tastier, without using any fuel or heating up the house. Not to mention it leaves me with an extra stovetop to take care of the vegetables. Yes, it is more work, which I would surely escape if I could just go for yougurt, or cheese sandwiches, or milk over cold cereal.

As a result our diet is much more varied and my daughter simply loves to observe and of late, take over, every stage of food preparation. She can identify all the ingredients, from individual spices to legumes to vegetables. She loves to shell peas, grate carrots, wash urad dal, add salt, and will often bring me a clove of garlic and ask, “shall we throw in some garlic?”

What I am hoping is that now that we’ve gotten over the hard part – introducing a wide variety of foods to our growing baby– when we do bring yougurt back into the picture (and when we can find cows living somewhat freely and with a healthy diet), it won’t dominate our diet as it once did. I think yougurt is a pretty healthy food, though I treat other dairy products as once-a-month items, on par with convenience food. Hey, it’s hard work, chewing all those greens and grains. Why not just pay and make the cows do it? I suppose cows, given a choice, might not actually want their milk to be pumped out for human consumption, so I’ll have to live with that on my conscience.

Ideally I’d wait till my daughter is old enough to ‘decide’ that she wants dairy products but in fact I think I will start letting her have yougurt sometime next year, and then I will have it too. Incidentally, she has seen calves drinking mother’s milk and she has also seen people milking the cows and carrying the milk in a pot. When I told her, “that is cow’s milk,” she replied, “that is calf’s milk.” [I said it was “Avu pAlu” and she said that it was “dUDa pAlu”]

Though I have kept dairy substitutes like soymilk to a minimum, if I had to go vegan indefinitely I think they would creep back into the picture. And from a planetary perspective, I am not sure the tetra-pack is less harmful than the dairy industry. Of course if I made it at home then I’d be okay. So my point is, that I am less interested in being 100% vegan than in achieving a way of feeding myself with as little damage to the environment, humanity and animals, as possible. Just because it is vegan I can’t ignore the damage done by Tropicana Orange Juice or a kiwi imported from New Zealand or even a banana imported from Honduras. I need to look at biodiversity, the impact of global trade, the fuel consumption, the land and water use, the working conditions, and of course the health implications of eating nonlocal, nonseasonal foods. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have to study rules of food combining or macriobiotic principles since they mostly got local seasonal foods and such combinations were limited by nature.

And it’s not only food. More people are examining the impact to people, animals and the planet of almost everything we do – the clothes we buy, the computers we use, and the conferences we attend. People are getting tired of travelling long distances and staying in big hotels to talk about the environment or world hunger. There has got to be a better way for people sincerely working on these issues to connect, morally support one another, share strategies and generate public opinion for policies without joining the jet set. It’s not merely the plane ride or the five star banquet. It is the entire set of rules that operates. These venues are selected so that those who ‘make policies’ will attend. If we had the meeting in a slum or rural village then we’d just be “preaching to the converted.” SO we have to meet “them” on their “turf” that is Bombay, Delhi, or Geneve or Minneapolis. We have to bring our facts to their attention. But …. I think from the Seattle protests till now, we are still searching for a satisfactory approach and are still trailing off after the but…

* * * *
Today more than a month after I officially quit being a near-vegan, I find myself unattracted to dairy products. I even bought a carton of yougurt – my favourite food of yore, and could not even bring myself to open it until a long drive on one particularly hot day when it happened to be the only food I had in the car so I ate it. It was delicious. But the next time I helped myself to some, I couldn’t even finish the two spoons on my plate. I think I’d really rather chew on the beans and grains myself.